Right-wing influencers and websites – including many that attacked pandemic-era public health measures – leveraged last year’s record-breaking wildfires to spread climate disinformation, researchers say.

The findings, which are not peer-reviewed, use the 2023 wildfires in Canada to show how social media lubricates the spread of false and misleading information in times of crisis. Beyond hindering evacuation efforts and emergency response, disinformation about the wildfires helped fuel opposition to climate policies.

“This report’s findings are evidence of the pressing need to address the spread of climate disinformation in Canada,” said Helen Hayes, research manager at the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy.

The study analyzed Twitter/X posts about the wildfires throughout 2023 to determine which posts gained the most traction and when. While disinformation was spreading on all major social media platforms, the researchers decided to focus on X/Twitter to obtain a snapshot of broader conversations, explained co-researcher Chris Russill, a professor at Carleton University.

The group found that posts started around May 2023 and largely came from Alberta, where raging wildfires would eventually displace about 38,000 people by the season's end. Those posts started as criticism of the governing UCP party regarding their response to the fires – until the province declared a state of emergency on May 6, 2023. After that, right-wing influencers falsely claiming the fires were started by arsonists became more prominent.

The right-wing posts became more numerous into June, as smoke from fires in Quebec and Ontario enveloped major American cities like New York. These posts became "more conspiratorial," the report notes, alleging that "eco-terrorists, left extremists and governments set the fires to advance a climate agenda."

In an email, Kevin Skrepnek, the manager of community and emergency services at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District and B.C. Wildfire's former head information officer, said the report "puts into words eloquently the angst that many in my industry have been feeling over the past few years – particularly the notion being spread by bad actors online that governments are leveraging crisis as an opportunity to further some odious agenda."

That narrative built into the summer, spiking with B.C.'s August declaration of a state of emergency and the federal government's decision to provide military support. This narrative of "climate authoritarianism" was often amplified by people or accounts that had been anti-lockdown crusaders during the pandemic, Russill said.

"You see a real blurring of pandemic emergency and climate emergency as overstated, fabricated or false, and used as a pretext to get people to sign on for policies that would extend state control," he explained. "Given that the pandemic has receded, the influencers and politicians that built their reputations and networks through anti-public-health content are starting to bring climate into those narratives to hold interaction and engagement."

For instance, recent years have seen controversial ex-professor Jordan Peterson increasingly delve into the climate change conversation, largely by denying it exists and presenting erroneous pseudo-science to back up his claims. For example, his recent tweets promote a fossil fuel lobbyist or falsely suggest climate measures will allow "tyrants" to take away people's "cars," "flights," or "luxury."

Peterson is a household name for his regressive views and antagonistic opinions on culture war topics like gender, race, sexual politics and COVID-19. He has about 6.5 million YouTube subscribers and is often featured on right-wing podcasts and at public events. (He is not a climate scientist.)

The spread of those anti-government narratives have an impact beyond people's computer screens and phones, and fueled some "absolutely abhorrent behaviours against emergency responders and government officials," Skrepnek said. He cited the case last year when B.C. wildfire fighters had to be pulled out from parts of B.C.'s Shuswap region following threats of violence and assault.

Natural disasters will regularly generate "legitimate concerns and criticisms," he wrote. But 2023 saw "content being propagated online is often completely divorced from reality." He cited as examples the claim that arson is responsible for many wildfires. It is not, he noted, despite Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s apparent belief in the idea. Also false, he said, is the suggestion that evacuation orders are meant to remove people strategically from areas to clear the way for some nebulous United Nations secret project.

Still, the researchers were clear that some of the responsibility for the proliferation of this disinformation lies with social media platforms. Canada's existing social media laws are "not working," they wrote by enabling the spread of disinformation. Designed to maximize engagement, which disinformation typically generates more readily than fact, they can shape an information ecosystem dominated by false information with few laws requiring them to ensure users can easily discover real news and facts.

"We also know that events that are associated with climate impacts, especially emergencies, attract a lot of attention and engagement," said Russill. "And anti-climate actors are keen to show up to contest the congealing of climate concern that tends to happen around events like this – and particularly around wildfire."

Go on a CBC YouTube video about wildfires and look at the comments (if you dare). It is all far right conspiracy nuts. It could make you believe this is how all Canadians think.

Thx for tip. I wonder what they get out of spreading lies?

Living in Alberta I have a provincial government, a federal leader of the opposition, many so called news sources like the Western Standard, Post Media and organizations like Take Back Alberta, plus a whole lot of people I encounter that really are divorced from reality and live in a surreal environment. What's scarey is these are leaders, people we should look up to and what do we get? Lies, misinformation, exaggerated info. Info taken out of context, all for political purposes.