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CORRECTION: This article originally published on 7th January 2020 contained false information. It has now been updated and corrected.
It originally claimed state authorities had arrested a total of 183 people in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania since November 2019. These arrests actually took place at various points throughout the year and, in the case of Victoria, over the entire year of 2019.
The article also originally quoted Dr Paul Read as saying 85% of all bushfires are caused by human activity, “13% confirmed arson and 37% suspected arson.” These figures are from an ABC news article published at the start of bushfire season in September 2019 in relation to youth fire setting during school holidays. His quote was taken out of context and misapplied to two separate bushfire-related issues.
Similar figures are also from a 2008 report that shouldn’t have been applied to the current bushfire crisis, according to the author of that report. The author’s response to the sharing of her information from 2008 in relation to the current bushfires can be found here.
State authorities have arrested a total of 183 people for arson-related offences in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania across the entire year of 2019.
Police concluded 103 fires in Queensland had been started deliberately, with 98 people – 67 of them juveniles – identified as the culprits.
The bushfires have had devastating effects in Australia in recent months, destroying thousands of homes, killing at least 25 people and millions of animals. The flames have so far blazed through 13 million acres of land, an area twice the size of the US state of Maryland.
Crimes relating to lighting bushfires carry a sentence of up to 25 years in prison for damaging property with the intention of endangering, and 21 years in prison for starting a bushfire and being reckless as to its spread, under the New South Wales Crimes Act, the Rural Fires Act and Rural Fires Regulation.
Anyone caught lighting a fire during a total fire ban could face up to 12 months in prison and/or a $5,500 fine. Meanwhile, anyone seen lighting a tobacco product within 15 metres of a stack of hay, grain, corn, or any standing crop could also face a fine of $5,500.
Claims around 85% of bushfires are caused by humans, either on purpose or accidentally, come from a 2008 report that was written well out of the context of the current bushfire crisis. The author of the original 2008 report has since said these figures were debunked in a much more recent report.
The more recent report by Nguyen et al. (2020) for ABC concluded as little as 1% of the land burned in New South Wales could be attributed to arson and that 0.03% of Victoria that burned had fire origins regarded as ‘suspicious’.
Ben Shepherd, acting media manager at the Rural Fire Service was quoted as saying:
I can confidently say the majority of the larger fires that we have been dealing with have been a result of fires coming out of remote areas as a result of dry lightning storms.
The report also goes on to say the true nature and cause of the bushfires will not be fully confirmed until after the bushfire crisis has settled and all data, analysis and investigations can take place and come to their conclusions.
However, discussion around the influence on human criminal action related to the bushfires has been sought by some to dispute the effects of climate change.
A misinformation campaign taking experts’ comments out of context, trending on Twitter under the hashtags #ArsonEmergency, #australiafire and #bushfireaustralia have been found to originate from a ‘much higher’ proportion of bot-like or troll accounts, according to analysis by Dr Timothy Graham from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
Speaking to The Guardian, he explained:
Australia suddenly appears to be getting swamped by mis/disinformation as a result of this environmental catastrophe, and we are suffering the consequences in terms of hyped up polarisation and an increased difficulty and inability for citizens to discern truth.
Looking at the kinds of accounts that post using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag, you see that these are individuals who are hyper-partisan ideologues, behaving in a way that is not reflective of the average Twitter user.
The conspiracy theories going around (including arson as the main cause of the fires) reflect an increased distrust in scientific expertise, scepticism of the media, and rejection of liberal democratic authority. These are all major factors in the global fight against disinformation, and based on my preliminary analysis it appears that Australia has for better or worse entered that battlefield, at least for now.
The reason #ArsonEmergency was not included in the original story is it is not factually correct.
Many people have also called out Australian leaders for failing to acknowledge the role of climate change and global warming in accelerating the spread of the blaze.
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