As B.C. is seeing the worst wildfire season on record, officials have now had to start battling other issues beyond fires threatening homes and communities: conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation.
And it’s a whole section on TikTok, “B.C. wildfire conspiracy,” with more than 11 million views.
Conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation have been running rampant on social media. In North Shuswap, videos were posted claiming fire hydrants had no water another claimed there was a company mining lithium in Scotch Creek.
Then on Wednesday (Aug. 23), a self-declared “freedom convoy” confronted an RCMP roadblock in the Shuswap, attempting to gain access to the area.
Earlier that day, hours before the convoy, BC Wildfire Service operations director Cliff Chapman was asked what kind of toll the rumours were taking on firefighters. He said when crews turn on their phones at the end of a 14-hour shift, and “they see negative social media posts about what they had done that day or what they have been doing for the course of the last three months, it has a profound impact on them.”
He added that in previous years wildfire crews were more in the province’s backcountry, but now residents are seeing an increase in their presence with interface fires where the forest meets the community.
“It has a negative impact when they see some of the conspiracies and some of the questioning, I think we recognize that there are questions that we need to answer, and we’re doing our best to fill that information for all of B.C.”
However, in recent days people have been jumping on TikTok to debunk the conspiracy theories or provide accurate information. Okanagan communities have also rallied around the firefighters.
Wes Regan, a UBC PhD candidate with expertise in conspiracy theories, disinformation and misinformation, said this is nothing new, but social media is helping to fuel the wildfire rumours.
“It historically sees a trend where traumatic and sort of inexplicable events, often at a global scale or with national implications, can be disorienting to people. Sometimes they will turn to things like conspiracy theories to try and make sense of what otherwise can be an inexplicable and threatening situation.”
He said rather than accept the global scientific consensus that huma activities have contributed to rising emissions, which are leading to some of these extreme weather events, people would rather dig in with an alternate theory of what’s happening.
“That involves a conspiracy theory that tries to provide a rationale.”
But conspiracy theories have been well-documented for a long time.
“You’d find pamphlets about some conspiracy theory at some odd book fair or conference or something or someone would have a table that had a couple of small print circulation books about who shot JFK.”
Then came social media.
“We sort of let the horses out of the barn, and now we’re trying to catch up with what has happened,” he said.
Regan compared it to biotech or pharmaceuticals which often go through rigorous approval before it can be released into the market.
Social media, he said, is “pretty much the largest social experiment in the history of humankind to have taken place over the last 20 years.”
Now that experiment is seeing real consequences.
One viral video on X (formerly Twitter) shows an official BC Wildfire Service video of a controlled or planned ignition on the Donnie Creek wildfire, but instead, a user added text over top saying “it was a setup.”
“What we’re doing is we’re taking the fuels out on our terms, rather than letting Mother Nature guide the project,” explained Mike Morrow, an ignitions specialist, in the video.
There are also theories that wildfires are a result of a directed energy weapon.
Regan said some of the conspiracies he’s seen around the B.C. wildfires include that climate change is a hoax.
“It’s this idea that there’s a global sort of secret plan to depopulate the planet and the threat of climate change is really just a hoax to try and do this.”
But Regan said it’s the first time he can recall seeing Canadian wildfires discussed with “this much attention and sort of conspiratorial narratives.”
“What I find very amusing as a researcher is that oftentimes the conspiracy theories are even more complex, and inconceivable than the science that we understand, so trying to make sense of some of these conspiracy theories requires great leaps of logic.”
When asked what people can do to better discern misinformation, disinformation or conspiracy theories, Regan said that’s the crux of the problem.
“We need to cultivate a culture of critical thinking when we’re confronted with misinformation, disinformation. Does it start with teaching critical thinking in school? Does it start with media literacy and talking about disinformation and misinformation in elementary schools and high schools?”
It’s something that needs to be invested in, he added.