Numerous experts have linked the vast scale of Australia's bushfires to climate change, noting that unprecedented heat and drought created conditions for fires to flourish.
But as Australians choked on smoke and discovered their homes had been destroyed this summer, a different message was spreading on Facebook.
Counter-theories gained traction online that blamed the fires on arsonists, failed hazard reduction policies and even lasers designed to clear a path for a high-speed railway. These theories are untrue or misleading, and have been used to undermine the mainstream consensus on the role of climate change.
And Facebook — the platform conspiracists are using most effectively to muddy the waters or straight-up deny climate change — is doing little to stop the spread.
Australia's federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese, who has previously called out Facebook for failing to take down a doctored image of himself, criticised the platform's failure to police false information.
"What Australians dealing with the bushfire crisis need is information and support," Albanese told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "What they don’t need is rampant misinformation and conspiracy theories being peddled by far-right pages and politicians."
A BuzzFeed News analysis using social media tool CrowdTangle shows that during the worst of the fires, far-right, fringe and conspiratorial Facebook pages were enjoying unusual success by spreading content that misdirected blame away from climate change.
BuzzFeed News assembled a list of almost 100 Facebook pages that were sharing misleading information about climate science in the height of the bushfire crisis. Crowdtangle data shows that engagement for those pages escalated significantly just as the worst hit, on New Year's Eve.
In some cases, viral climate-denying content appears to have been used as part of a successful publishing strategy — to take advantage of huge interest in the fires, sow doubt about climate change and increase a page’s audience at the same time.
One climate denial page, "Climate Change LIES", had a big start to January. In the week starting January 5, it published 36 posts — more than double its average number. Its page likes jumped by an unusually high number that week, 132.
Its most successful post that week blamed arson for the fires, explicitly spelling out that the cause was "not global warming". The post linked to, and incorrectly described, a Sydney Morning Herald op-ed with a headline ripe for confusion — the figures in the article were about fires more broadly and not the bushfires specifically. The post was shared over 1,100 times, 33 times more than an average post on the page.
The page's second most viral post used a dank graphic to suggest climate activists had lit the fires. It was shared 432 times.
In fact, recent posts pegged to the Australian bushfires have been among the best-performing posts on "Climate Change LIES" over the last 12 months.
The page's use of attention-grabbing graphics, mainstream news articles with misleading headlines and articles published on less reputable websites to spread the message that climate change is not real is repeated on other pages, including many which do not usually devote substantial airtime to environmental issues.
The second-most shared post in 2019 for Facebook page Revive Australia came on the penultimate day of the year — the same day authorities decided it was too dangerous to order the Victorian town of Mallacoota to evacuate ahead of an approaching fire.
The suggestion in the post, that Australia has experienced extreme weather before, is a classic trope of climate denialism, because it implies that a heating climate is part of a natural cycle unrelated to carbon emissions.
The post was shared 3,500 times — more than 80 times the average for posts on this page, which has just under 20,000 likes and represents the anti-government "Yellow Vest" movement.
It is one of many unusually high-performing posts sowing doubt about the realities of climate change shared by Revive Australia this bushfire season.
Others from December and January blamed the majority of fires on arson, advised readers not to "buy into the propaganda of global warming" and referred to a "climate change hoax".
A video shared on Jan. 6, claiming to be “undeniable proof” that man-made global warming had been “debunked” has been watched over 16,000 times and shared by hundreds of people.
The page enjoyed much higher than usual growth between Dec. 29 and Jan. 11, when the bushfire crisis was at its most menacing. In those months, it predominantly posted content relating to the climate and the bushfires, and started posting more frequently.
The pattern is evident on several other Facebook pages, including the conservative news site Caldron Pool, conservative political group Great Australian Party, and conservative page The Quiet Australian.
When asked what Facebook was doing about false and misleading information about the bushfires specifically circulating on its platforms, a spokesperson said: "Our work to combat misinformation on Facebook is focused on removing content and accounts that violate our policies, reducing the distribution of misleading content, and informing people when they do come across misleading content."
As of Jan. 17, 2020, two of the company's Australian fact checking partners AFP and AAP had debunked 17 claims made on Facebook during Australia's bushfire season. When a claim is rated as false, Facebook shows it lower down in the news feed in an attempt to reduce the number of people who see it and hinder its spread.
Of those fact checks, two relate to false claims made about causes of Australia's bushfires. None of them examine the viral claims denying that climate change has played a role in the severity of this season's unprecedented fires.
The problem for Facebook is that even if it restricts the reach of claims that are quite easily proven false — such as a photo that was actually taken in 2013 — users remain free to promote misleading narratives that are more politically contentious and complex, such as climate denialism.
And in the case of the bushfires, Facebook pages are rewarded with a greater reach and a growing audience for doing so.
Evelyn Douek, an Australian doctoral student at Harvard Law School and affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, told BuzzFeed News that it was "entirely predictable" that this kind of activity would proliferate in the wake of any high-profile disaster or tragedy.
"We know for sure, for example, that people are going to share images from other times and contexts as if they are current," Douek said.
"Platforms know this. They need to anticipate bad actors and misinformation. This includes devoting more resources to supporting fact-checkers during these times, having special response teams so that more false claims are flagged and they can ensure they're not amplifying divisive and what they call 'borderline' content."
But Douek cautioned against too severe a response.
"I don't think we necessarily want to live in a world where [platforms] decide what claims from mainstream media and politicians" — including politicians from a foreign country to America, where Facebook is based — "are allowed online."