Disturbing reason crime story went viral
A TWO-year-old article about a trio of teenage arsonists in Melbourne's west has been wilfully manipulated to spread fake news about our bushfire crisis to tens of thousands of people across the world.
Prominent alt-right figures in the US and Europe have seized on an article in The Age from January 2018 that shows CCTV footage of three teenage girls, who were alleged to have intentionally lit a grassfire and ran away.
Analysis by Storyful has found the article has now re-emerged and been shared a remarkable number of times globally since January 9 this year.
Many of those sharing the article are using it to spread misinformation about Australia's current bushfire crisis and dismiss the role of climate change in exacerbating the deadly blazes.
After the article began to circulate, staff at The Age amended its headline to include the words "in 2018" and added an editor's note that stated: "We are conscious people are sharing this story in the context of the 2020 bushfire crisis. Please be aware the story is from 2018."
However, the article has continued to be shared out of context on social media, gaining significant traction on Facebook and Twitter resulting in thousands of fresh shares in recent weeks.
The earliest example found by Storyful of the article being attached to the recent, catastrophic bushfires was from influential American alt-right figure Paul Ray Ramsay, who early on January 9, Australian time, posted a screenshot of the article's headline to his 60,000 followers with the caption: "The Australian fires were not caused by 'climate change.'"
The post did not include a link to the article.
While several users pointed out in response that the events described by the headline took place in 2018, Mr Ramsay's tweet had not been taken down and had received more than 5000 retweets and 10,000 likes two weeks later.
The Australian fires were not caused by “climate change.” pic.twitter.com/6JDvWg8EVO— RAMZPAUL (@ramzpaul) January 8, 2020
Mr Ramsay's tweet was quickly seized on by other right-wing accounts, including one UK user who generated more than 1000 interactions for her follow-up tweet.
Many accounts responded with comments using the content to dispute the link between the fires and climate change, as well as to push anti-immigration rhetoric.
Some tweets even suggested Islamic State may have been behind this season's bushfires.
Mr Ramsay's tweet spread as far as an account claiming to represent the Chilean outpost of the QAnon conspiracy network.
A few hours after Ramsay's tweet, users on Twitter and Facebook began sharing the link to the article - some to debunk the original post but others to deny the connection between Australia's fires and climate change.
According to Storyful's analysis, the article link was directly shared more than 300 times on
Twitter between January 9 and January 16 after receiving zero shares in the preceding week. These tweets, only a small share of which highlighted that the article was being used out of context, were in turn retweeted more than 4600 times.
One tweet from an account that shares conspiracy theory and pro-Trump content generated more than 1400 interactions for a post that stated: "It appears to be some LEFT WING activists giving 'CLIMATE CHANGE' a helping hand. THE TRUTH WILL ALWAYS OUT."
The Age article does not include any information about the trio's motivation in lighting the fire. They had not been identified or arrested at the time of the story's original publication.
Many of the accounts sharing the article appeared to be US-based, with their bios featuring references to President Trump, while the story was also jumped on by right-wing figures in Europe.
They included Dutch politician René Dercksen, a member of Utrecht council for right-wing nationalist Party for Freedom, who received more than 700 interactions for his tweet downplaying the link between the fires and climate change.
Het valt niet meer te ontkennen. Klimaatverandering vastgelegd op CCTV.https://t.co/k44rEdRTfU— René Dercksen (@ReneDercksen) January 9, 2020
Several tweets sharing the article also attacked teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, with one reading: "@GretaThunberg will be so proud with them putting #climatechange on the map in #Australia ... with any means necessary..."
On January 10, Age journalist Rachael Dexter, who wrote the original article, tweeted: "Very distressing to see a story with my name attached being misrepresented in such a way. Very alarming."
She asked her followers to point out the story's date if they saw it circulated online.
Her post gained about 450 likes and just under 300 retweets, but this paled in comparison to reach of the posts that has manipulated her story.
This story is going viral on Facebook, pushed by climate change denier groups. It is TWO YEARS OLD and has no relation to the current #vicfires #ausfires #AustralianBushfireDisaster whatsoever. If you see it being posted in your feed, please point it outhttps://t.co/Kb06QX6U0H— Rachael Dexter (@rachael_dexter) January 9, 2020
Storyful has also uncovered examples of the video from the article being shared without the story link, which would provide the proper context.
The article has also quickly circulated among several Australian and US-linked right-wing
pages on Facebook since January 9.
According to data from Crowdtangle, the earliest recent example of it being shared to a public page or group was on January 9, after Mr Ramsay's tweet, when it was posted to the "Americans Cry for Freedom" group with the caption: "Here are 3 of the over 200 'Environmentalists' accused of starting fires in Australia with the intention of blaming 'Global Warming'." That post had been shared a further 238 times as of January 22.
It generated the biggest response when it was shared to the "Fair Go For Australians" group, where users frequently share anti-immigration and climate-change sceptic material. Despite the group having just 3500 members, a post sharing the article link generated more than 500 shares.
The link was also shared to the "Drain the Swamp Australia" page, generating more than 300 interactions, and the "Australian Conservative News" page, generating more than 170 interactions.
'PEOPLE KNOW THIS WILL GO FAR AND WIDE'
Dr Will Grant - a senior lecturer in science communication at the Australian National University - told news.com.au the misrepresentation of legitimate news is a "new part of the world of social media".
"The fact that this is being shared as far away as Chile and the Netherlands shows there's clearly a global discourse going on about Australia - it's an interesting thing," he said. "But with this, people know that wilful misrepresentation, like we're seeing here, will go far and wide."
He said that it also shows that "fake news" doesn't have to be "fake" in the traditional sense of the word.
"In this case it shows that it can be a misrepresentation of something that was true, and bending it into another context to fit people's pre-existing beliefs," he said.
Dr Grant said it's often unclear whether the people that share this type of content are aware of whether it's relevant or not.
"People are very happy to share something that panders to their existing worldview and what they want to see, without reading it properly especially if it's from a source they trust," he said. "People don't have to read things properly before they are able to share it."
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age executive editor James Chessell told news.com.au he was "very concerned" about his publications' stories being misappropriated online.
"We don't think taking down old stories is a good idea but we are obviously very concerned when they are misappropriated online by the far right or left," he said.
"In those cases when an old story has been misrepresented we try to make the date of publication very clear to the reader by adding a note at the top. We are looking at an automated solution to the problem."