For the past three weeks, thousands of Albertans have been forced to evacuate their homes while firefighters and even Canadian troops battle massive wildfires.

But in some corners of the province, there are whispers that the soldiers' presence has nothing to do with the fires. In a video posted to Twitter on Tuesday and viewed about 261,000 times, a man identified in the post as "Nicholas" tells viewers "there's rumours" the military isn't Canadian. "Our guts are telling us," he says conspiratorially, that the soldiers were sent "by the UN" to "round us up."

Disinformation has set social media alight with outlandish conspiracies and false information that are spreading almost as fast as the fires. At least one MP appears to have entered the fray: During the May 11 question period, someone heckling Liberal MP Karina Gould offscreen appears to say the fires were "started by your government," echoing conspiracies that the federal government and a nebulous group of "elites" started the blazes to "destroy" Alberta.

Emergency responders and some politicians are exasperated and say this kind of disinformation hinders efforts to keep people safe during extreme weather events like the fires and to deal with climate change, which climate researchers say has fuelled the fires.

"It's quite challenging," said Kevin Skrepnek, the manager of community and emergency services at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District and B.C. Wildfire's former head information officer. While some people resist evacuations and other public safety measures for "legitimate reasons" like caring for livestock, he has noticed that a growing number of people resist officials because they "just are questioning authority."

During emergencies, "everything is just ratcheted up and amplified and emotions are running high and people are looking for information that might not even exist," he said. That creates a void where "simple solutions" to complex problems, including conspiracies, "can run wild, including during the ongoing fires in Alberta.”

The problem has gotten worse since he started working in wildfire communication in 2011. Since then, the growth of social media has fostered an expectation from citizens that they will be able to obtain information about an emergency in nearly real-time, a hard standard to meet for officials trying to gather information from several agencies at once.

Social media is "a feature and a bug simultaneously," explained York University professor Eric Kennedy, an expert on wildfire communication. Many government agencies use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with residents as fast as possible, but because the platforms don't filter posts for accuracy, users can often see "good and bad information sitting right alongside each other."

"You need to be a savvy consumer," he said, but even then, it can be tricky to figure out what is true or not. Online information about disasters typically follows a gradient from "really reliable information through to anecdotal but helpful, through straight-up misinformation … through to disinformation where you have actors intentionally seeding incorrect information."

For example, in some corners of Alberta, there are whispers that the military’s presence has nothing to do with the fires. #Misinformation #ConspiracyTheories #Wildfires

The most prominent form of this type of malicious disinformation spreading about Alberta's fires has been a narrative of what Carleton University communications professor Chris Russill calls "climate authoritarianism."

This is the idea that efforts to combat climate change are a cover for a shadowy group of elites — often including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal government — to restrict people's freedom. It is a narrative right-wing politicians and media often "problematically” legitimize by bringing it into the mainstream, for example, last summer when conservative politicians used it to attack a federal plan to reduce emissions from fertilizers.

But recent weeks have shown that even life-and-death information about unfolding disasters is vulnerable to this type of disinformation.

Take a May 6 tweet by Bushels per Acre, an anonymous account that appears to belong to an aspiring right-wing influencer with 24,300 Twitter followers and over 24,500 on YouTube and Instagram. The tweet lists a litany of right-wing talking points — the "carbon tax," "vax mandates," "wokeism" and references to a conspiracy the World Economic Forum is trying to control the planet — before implying the fires are part of a co-ordinated effort to sway the Alberta election. It received over 334,000 views and was retweeted nearly 2,300 times.

Or a series of Facebook posts and videos by so-called Freedom George, a prominent Freedom Convoy figure and close associate of Pat King whose real name is Tyson Billings. In the clips, he insinuates people are starting the fires with comments like "Alberta is under attack" and "I don't care how warm it is, there is other things going on here." The clips got nearly 60,000 views combined, and thousands of comments touching on a wide range of conspiracies.

This type of disinformation and the anti-authority ideology behind it appears to be frustrating officials on the ground.

Earlier this month, Yellowhead County Mayor Wade Williams went as far as telling residents to "take Facebook and throw that damn thing in the garbage" because the platform is so full of false information. In a statement to Canada's National Observer, Williams said his comments were meant to encourage people to avoid "rumours on social media" and ensure they got information from "legit sources," but he declined to comment further.

In addition to hindering effective disaster response, Russill said some of the disinformation also appears to support right-wing advocates' broader push against climate policies.

For instance, in early May, far-right media outlet Rebel News posted a story about a controlled burn in Banff National Park that went out of control. The story emphasized the burn was overseen by a female-led team that was in the park for an international training program to support women in wildfire, who only account for about 10 per cent of wildland firefighters.

While the story did not contain outright conspiracies, the extreme focus on the fire's link to a progressive gender equality group dog-whistled to right-wing narratives against so-called "woke" policies. This type of framing can feed conspiracies and disinformation, Russill said, by providing a "source of legitimacy" on which a false story can be built.

"There's enough content available that it's very rarely … a completely overt fabrication. There's something true that gets exaggerated in its importance or significance," he explained. "That then becomes the context for which you can draw in wider things. And then there's often a much broader story that can take a conspiratorial or populist turn."

It is a problem he worries could become more common as the climate crisis deepens and triggers ever more frequent and extreme weather events like fires, hurricanes and floods. Social media companies have also been "hesitant" to enforce their disinformation policies because of how it may impact their profits. Taken together, he said these two factors mean responding to future extreme weather events will be harder than ever.

"These are the moments when you need to co-ordinate different levels of government around a common purpose," he said. "(Officials) having to cope with these sorts of adversarial narratives that are seizing on social tension to amplify defensive conflict is pretty problematic."

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The first person to post such things should be charged with the same offence as hollering "Gunman! Gunman!" in a crowded entertainment venue would.

One wonders if the people who propagate this stuff think it's a joke, or if they're really that ignorant ...

But someone out there actually makes up each and every piece of the Big BS Storm that harms everything good.

I totally agree! Unfortunately, social media, especially Twitter now that Elon Musk took over, only made things worse. The bad actors, foreign or domestic, are having a heyday with disinformation, some of whom are associated with the right-wing conservative groups and bashing our PM every which way. The right-wing media is also guilty of pushing propaganda and not surprised that CBC is being targeted by groups.

I believe in freedom of speech, but not at the expense of propagating disinformation, conspiracy theories and other nonsense that are clearly propaganda. Social media and the mainstream media need to be held accountable for their users or journaists who push garbage, but do nothing to stop it.

They both ARE that ignorant, are proud of it, but also think it's a joke to throw a spanner into the works in order to qualify as a bona fide "shit-disturber" among their sniggering peers. That's always been a pattern among juvenile males in a group but social media has given them that ever more disastrous exponential reach that potentially offers the even more heady power of an "influencer." Despite social media being directly responsible for the strength in numbers that has TWICE manifested in the infamous "mob mentality" on Jan. 6th and with the trucker convoy, this mayor blaming facebook out loud then feels he has to retreat from stating that is a key part of the problem. All powers that be are SO careful to get it right, i.e. never lose your temper and blurt the unvarnished truth, too "controversial" while legions take snippets of it and run with rogue it, showing how a little bit of truth is indeed as dangerous a thing as a little bit of knowledge.
Don't we all know already that there will be NO way to actually control social media (OR AI, let's face it), and isn't Elon Musk just living proof of that?
Aren't many of us starting to think longingly of the "before times," knowing instinctively that "if we could just unplug it...." I suspect that over time more and more people will turn away from the madness but also very possibly not until the majority of our human societies are completely ruined. It's the fast track we're on.
Clearly people simply have to start screaming the truth from some OTHER rooftop than social media. Like that mayor...

The EU has started. Canada's been balking, though it would be in Canadians' interests to adopt similar legislation.
Once it hits'em in the pocketbook, with real fines, they'd likely pay a bit more attention.

Because of course!
Though I am deeply saddened by the conspiracy theories and propaganda, it is entirely expected. It is just like MTG's "Jewish space lasers".