When It Comes to the Australian Bushfires, Rupert Murdoch is an Arsonist | Opinion

In times of crisis, social media can become a hotbed of misinformation. Often it's accidental—people sharing faulty information they think is true, based on unconfirmed initial reports, or comical trolling, like the now-nearly-decade-old "shark on the highway" photoshop that gets shared during seemingly every hurricane landfall. But there is increasingly another sort of misinformation, and it's much more sinister. It's the deliberate injection of lies, disinformation, employing a combination of high profile trolls and bot armies to wage a public disinformation campaign.

The bushfires currently engulfing Australia offer an unwelcome example, one that I'm watching from front row seats here in the country. Little did I know when I planned my sabbatical in Sydney to study the impact of climate change on extreme weather events in Australia, that I would be here in the country to witness what is arguably the most profound example yet of that phenomenon. As I write this commentary, I'm looking out at smoke-tinged skies while the faint smell of smoke wafts in through an open window. Living through its consequences, even as we study it, is a recurring irony of climate science in the 21st century.

But there is also a concerted effort to mislead people as to the true nature of these horrific fires by individuals and organizations that promote the interests of the fossil fuel industry by denying the reality and threat posed by climate change. With two dozen people and a billion animals dead, people are rightly looking for an explanation. Many, including climate scientists like myself, are pointing to the role that climate change has played in making the fires worse. As I often say, it's "not rocket science": As our continents heat due to the buildup of carbon pollution from fossil fuel burning , droughts get worse, and the combined heat and dryness provides more fuel, leading to more intense, faster-spreading, more extensive bushfires like the ones that we are currently witnessing play out. Indeed, a prophetic 2008 Australian scientific assessment report predicted that "fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect...should be directly observable by 2020."

With a conservative prime minister in Scott Morrison who had coddled Australian coal interests, promoted climate change denial, helped sabotage the 2019 Madrid climate negotiations and vacationed in Hawaii while Australians were suffering the impacts of unprecedented heat and wildfires, here finally was a very real opportunity for Australians to connect the dots: electing climate denialists leads to death and destruction.

So the forces of disinformation quickly stepped in. Conservative politicians and pundits blamed greens for preventing the government from thinning out forests, even as experts dismissed such talk as "lazy political rhetoric" and "simply conspiracy stuff" intended "to deflect the conversation away from climate change."

There was a full court press by the Murdoch media machine, including The Australian, described by Sourcewatch as a paper that "promotes climate change denial in a way that is sometimes...so astonishing as to be entertaining", The Herald Sun, and Sky News television network in Australia, and Fox News in the U.S., to promote the false claim that the massive bushfires engulfing Australia were primarily a result of "arson". The distortions were so egregious that a whistleblower from within Newscorp, named Emily Townsend, came forward, condemning the organization for waging a "misinformation campaign" consisting of "irresponsible" and "dangerous" coverage of the current unprecedented bushfire crisis. And in a late-breaking development, Rupert Murdoch's son James Murdoch is now blasting his father's media empire, indicating that he is "particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary."

The false claims were then parroted by a few key influential individuals (such as Donald Trump Jr.) on social media, right wing websites and professional armies of trolls and bots (I've encountered many of them in my own twitter feed) then whipped these false and malicious claims into a massive miasma of misinformation.

There were at least two falsehoods being trumpeted by the denialists. First of all, the main source of ignition for these wildfires was actually natural--dry lightning strikes. The fact that some arrests had been made of individuals who had broken fire safety laws by improper disposal of cigarettes etc. was twisted by the Murdoch media into the completely false claim that the fires were primarily caused by arson. But in fact—as reported by The Guardian—"Victoria police say there is no evidence any of the devastating bushfires in the state were caused by arson, contrary to the spread of global disinformation exaggerating arsonist arrests during the current crisis."

But the larger implicit untruth was that the source of ignition was even relevant here. There are many potential sources of wildfire ignition, human and natural. But what allowed any ignited fires to attain the intensity and scale of the bushfires breaking out across the Australian continent was the tinderbox-like conditions that prevailed across the continent due to record heat and drought—unprecedented conditions that cannot be explained without human-caused planetary warming.

This was an inconvenient truth for the climate change-denying Murdoch media empire and the fossil fuel interests for whom they carry water. After all, once the public connects the dots between fossil fuel pollution, climate change disinformation, and the burning urgency of its consequences, Murdoch and his fossil fueled friends will be seen as the true arsonists: climate arsonists.

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The views expressed in the article are the author's own.