A Fire of misinformation Analyzing a recycled conspiracy theory

Identifying Misinformation

In August 2020, severe wildfires spread in many areas of California. While the cause of each fire may not be exactly the same, sources such as The Guardian and California's CapRadio point to a particularly hot and dry summer combined with more than 14,000 lightning strikes in California in August.

The 2020 wildfire season in California seems particularly severe. According to the NASA Earth Observatory, smoke from the fires has spread as far away as Colorado and Wyoming as well as hundreds of miles into the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, Cal Fire confirms that over 1.8 million acres of land have burned, 7 people have died, and nearly 4,000 structures have burned, including homes.

Even though wildfires are increasingly common in California, the contributing factors, such as global warming, dry climate, severe weather, human error, and plenty of 'fuel' to burn, seem fairly easy to identify, despite their complexities. However, some people online have been spreading the idea that the California wildfires were actually started purposefully by powerful lasers. Interestingly, though this idea has surged in 2020, the photos used to 'prove' this theory initially circulated in 2018.

The purpose of this misinformation, seen below, is to put forward a conspiracy theory that powerful actors are attempting to test lasers or burn California lands. In 2018, The Daily Beast reported that the conspiracy theory was intended to argue that the lasers were meant to clear a path for a high-speed rail train.

An image of supposed laser strikes meant to 'prove' that the 2020 California fires were caused by powerful lasers. Image source: FactCheck.org

Audience & Perspectives

It's not always easy to identify audiences for misinformation or to understand what motivates them to believe misinformation when it arises. A recent article in Scientific American explained that cognitive biases often exist to help us not feel overwhelmed by information or ideas.

In the California wildfire situation, people might feel fearful or overwhelmed by the massive scale of the fires. Instead of believing complex causes such as global warming and severe weather, it might somehow feel more comfortable to believe that a relatively simple yet shocking explanation (government forces using powerful lasers to dig trenches). This explanation, though far-fetched, might also reinforce some people's fears and assumptions about government power.

While there may not be an exact audience for this misinformation, we know that there is an audience for it because FactCheck.org mentioned that more than 10,000 people shared the image and explanation.

We also learn in an article from Stanford University that the people most likely to believe conspiracy theories are those who most want to believe it. They describe the power of "confirmation bias," or "the tendency in all of us to believe stories that reinforce our convictions." People who believe the laser theory may already believe that powerful government or military forces are trying to control their lives.

Strategies & Tactics

This example of misinformation has a few strategies to try to increase its believability. For example, each of the images included certainly look like a beam of light striking the earth, so the visual 'evidence' seems strong, initially.

Additionally, the caption with the images asks the question, "Is this evidence that powerful lasers were used to cause these fires?" By posing this as a question, the original author of the image creates a sense of doubt, and doubt can create fear. People who are afraid may be more inclined to believe things that confirm their fear, as I mentioned in the previous section.

Fact Checking

I've included many sources here that can help people understand how to find better information, such as reading credible news sources. Another tool is to use fact checking websites, such as FactCheck.org, which is where I found an explanation of misinformation. It would not be easy for me to find the original sources for the pictures included in the original piece of misinformation, but FactCheck.org did that work for me, allowing me to quickly understand the origins of the misinformation and what the accurate information is.

I don't have all the answers for how to identify and avoid misinformation, but I would say that being aware of our biases can help. Seeking for multiple perspectives is important as well. I also think we need to do our work to verify information before passing it along.

Created By
Rachel Bryson


Created with images by Michael Held - "untitled image" • Markus Winkler - "untitled image" • Luke Pennystan - "My first time shooting fireworks was incredible!"