Canada's current wildfire season is devastating evidence of the effects of climate change, scientists say, but for some conspiracy theorists, the thousands of square kilometres of burnt ground isn't enough to convince them.

Instead, space lasers, arsonists and government plots to restrict people's movement are some of the causes of the fires, according to fringe online circles. But despite being fringe, these theories are widely circulated and boosted by social media algorithms.

People turn to conspiracy theories to help them make sense of disasters like the recent wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui, in British Columbia or the Northwest Territories, said Eric Kennedy, associate professor at York University's school of administrative studies.

"Some of the conspiracy theories about wildfires create simple villains, or simple evil characters — 'this is Bill Gates, this is the World Economic Forum, this is a particular evil actor,’” said Kennedy, who studies decision-making in emergency contexts, particularly wildfires.

“Sometimes the simple stories are very appealing. Sometimes it's about fitting into an existing world view and making things make sense within that paradigm."

Kawser Ahmed, political science adjunct professor at University of Winnipeg, said almost all conspiracy theories have a spark of truth but are distorted to attract attention or fuel outrage.

Forest fires, he said, are spectacular events — like terrorist attacks — that draw attention before the full facts come to light, and in the ensuing uncertainty, conspiracy theories fill in the gaps in information. But such theories harm those who are fleeing the fires and those who are fighting the blazes, he noted.

Cliff Chapman, BC Wildfire Service director of operations, said conspiracy theories "really hit me and, I think, our organization in a really big way."

He told reporters that firefighters, who return home after a 14-hour gruelling shift, turn on their phones and see negative social media posts about the fires and their work.

Fear, falsehoods and conspiracy theories ignite amid #Canada's #Wildfires. #Misinformation #ConspiracyTheories #ClimateChange

"We are doing everything that we can to try to protect those homes," Chapman said. "We're doing everything that we can to try to make sure that people can get home as fast as they can. And so it has a big impact on our staff."

Conspiracy theories also risk affecting people who are victims of forest fires, like those forced from their homes, Ahmed said.

They are vulnerable, stressed out and sometimes suffer from a lack of confidence in authorities, so it is easy to fall into the trap of a conspiracy theory, which offers a more clearly defined villain, he said.

"This is what I'm really worried about," he said. "Once they even go back home, they could become more antagonistic against institutions, governments, police."

Scientists are blaming climate change for the severity of Canada's wildfire season. A study by the U.K.-based World Weather Attribution group released this week says greenhouse gas emissions made Quebec's fire weather about 50 per cent more conducive to fire between May and June.

But conspiracy theorists play down or deny the link between climate change and wildfires, and invoke ideas of eco-terrorism, arsonists and environmental extremists to explain what's happening, Ahmed said. "It's easier to sell."

Ahmed said conspiracy theories have been around as long as time but were easier to contain to certain areas or communities before the era of mass communication.

"But now, the ability of a single human being to spread something which has no basis in science or in rationality, and is illogical, is enormous."

Social media algorithms accelerate the spread of conspiracy theories because once someone clicks on one link, other links on similar topics pop up, creating a feedback loop that reinforces false beliefs, he said.

"It will take you to a very defined trajectory."

Studies have shown that the misinformation that gets the most attention is scary, emotional, moral or ideological, and easy to process, said Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta. "The wildfire misinformation checks all those boxes. Add fear and uncertainty and you have a perfect mix."

Chris Russill, associate professor at Carleton University's school of journalism and communication, said journalism is one way to correct such misinformation. The "poverty of local news," he said, compounded by Meta's decision to block news content in Canada, is aiding in the spread of bizarre wildfire conspiracy theories.

"It's created a condition in which this unreliable information can circulate in a more unchecked way."

Kennedy said conspiracy theories can cause diminishing trust among people, which could reduce compliance with evacuation orders.

Solutions at "lots of different levels" are required to snuff out conspiracy theories, he said. The most important thing that people can do is to be "very careful" when they find information that confirms their belief, he said. At an institutional level, Kennedy said, emergency management agencies need to earn public trust and not take it for granted.

People who are forced out of their homes during wildfires sometimes feel their needs aren't being understood by government agencies that may not fully appreciate how disruptive an evacuation is, he said.

"Agencies can perhaps continue to invest in and do an even better job at listening to those concerns and responding to them in a way that builds trust," he said.

"It's not something that happens overnight, or just with an ad on Facebook. We need to see this not as a problem of … fact-checking alone, but really about building trusted relationships in our institutions and our organizations."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2023.

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Somehow this article manages not to actually tell the reader what the conspiracy theories are if they are said to have a spark of truth - which seems doubtful - but are simply taken too far. And I do wonder at the idea that Meta - the very source of the problem - not carrying news is the problem. If people need news, and they do, why not the CBC Lite app for instance, available even in remote areas, or other sources of reasonably credible news?

In my view, Meta is not the problem. For proof, one simply has to recall that gov't to citizen communication occurred before Zuckerberg was s gleam in his parents' eyes.

People can also turn on a radio.

I may be mixing my conspiracies, but some are apparently blaming directed energy weapons -- I think they are different from space lasers --for some forest fires.

Seems to me that people susceptible to conspiracy theories look to them for anything untoward occurring in their lives; it's like they reach a tipping point in their lives at which time they're no longer able to otherwise make sense of things.

In other words they lose their minds somewhat. Agreed.
I notice language and how ubiquitous the more emotional word "belief" now is along with its attendant "believers" and how it's wandered WAY outside its usual former "faith-based" context. It's almost like the alternate reality sanctioned by religious doctrines and an array of strutting sundry conspiracy theories ALSO based on emotion is having a moment, emboldened by social media. We really have to stop referencing and validating that as being remotely comparable with our usual "media."
So "belief" and its believers are popping up everywhere now, including in formerly "fact-based" realms like science. We saw this in the pandemic with medical science and public health tossed aside like they were nothing, but now all institutions and all authorities are under attack along with our democracy.
De-programming is notoriously difficult, if not impossible and a tricky process at best, so I give full credit to the authorities in question for firmly and kindly standing their ground and insisting on the rules, backed as they are by the longstanding rule of law.
Anything else is anarchy and/or insanity, i.e. what is going in the States right now, as we speak.