Australian Prime Minister’s Bushfire Aid Ad Criticized Amid Flood of Disinformation

Amid the devastation suffered in Australia as a result of rampant bushfires and right-wing disinformation efforts, Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced a wave of criticism for an advertisement that both elided government regulations and circumvented actual firefighting efforts.

The ad, released on January 3 2020, promoted efforts by his administration to fight the wildfires, which have killed at least 25 people and devastated local animal populations. But in a departure from standard procedure, it credited its authorizaqtion to Morrison’s Liberal Party rather than the government itself.

A day later, Morrison wrote, “The video message simply communicates the Government’s policy decisions and the actions the Government is undertaking to the public. The same practice is rightly employed by the Leader of the Opposition and the Labor Party. This is required and standard practice in Australia.”

But A.J. Brown, a board member for the anti-corruption advocacy group Transparency International, called Morrison’s ad “atrocious.”

“I interpreted it, and I think thousands of people interpreted it, as a piece of government advertising, attempting to communicate the Australian government response. And that is later how the prime minister tried to explain it. But clearly it was not that,” he told the Guardian:

It was a party political advertisement, and deceptive, as it became a claim that the Liberal party, not the government and Australia’s own taxpayers were the ones putting ‘boots on the grounds’, sending navy ships and supplying masks.

Another group, the Australia Defence Association, accused the prime minister of exploiting the use of military resources in the crisis.

“They put out a media release giving people all the information so you have to ask yourself what the purpose of the ad is, and the purpose is clearly party political advantage,” executive director Neil James said. “And that is just plain wrong.”

Morrison’s administration also announced that it would form a national agency to supervise recovery from the bushfires, which drew criticism from Shane Fitzsimmons, rural fire services commissioner for the state of New South Wales. Traditionally each individual state government has jurisdiction regarding those matters but Fitzsimmons told reporters that he only heard about the unidentified new agency from the media.

“I was disappointed and I was frustrated in the middle of what was one of our worst (fire) days ever on record with massive dislocation and movement of people and a focus on really difficult weather,” he said.

The increased response, which will also include the use of up to $20 million Australian dollars to lease four additional planes to aid in firefighting efforts, represents an about-face from Morrison’s administration; in November 2019, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack called Australian Green party members Richard Di Natale and Adam Bandt “inner-city raving lunatics” and said that people highlighting the link between global climate change, the country’s three-year-long drought, and the bushfires affecting the country were “pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.”

In a speech that same month, Morrison attacked environmental groups during a speech for organizing boycotts against industries dealing in non-renewable products, accusing them of acting to stifle the country’s economy:

Together with the Attorney-General, we are working to identify mechanisms that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threaten the livelihoods of fellow Australians, especially in rural and regional areas, and especially here in Queensland.

While the administration downplayed Australia’s climate issues leading up to the more recent devastation, researchers found that troll and bot accounts were pushing disinformation online to influence the country’s national discourse and blaming the Greens for the blazes, as well as false claims that arson — not climate conditions — were responsible for the catastrophic wildfires.

“I’m not sure whether it’s orchestrated, or the extent to which this campaign is being coordinated, but there does appear to be a particular focal point for spreading disinformation about arson in relation to the bushfires,” Queensland University of Technology professor Timothy Graham said. “I do get a strong sense, based on the evidence so far and based on the analysis I’ve done, is that it does have all the hallmarks of broader conspiratorial-style thinking [and] far-right populist, extremist discussions online.”

Far-right media organizations and social media users further muddied the issue as the fires gained international attention, promoting the equally false claim that 183 people had been arrested for arson “since the start of the bushfire season.” In reality, only 24 people have been arrested for arson-related charges in connection with the fires.

Separate analyses by the Guardian and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) found that outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch either downplayed the bushfires in their coverage or allowed commentators to deny that climate was a factor in them despite statements to the contrary on national television by more than 20 former fire chiefs. Murdoch outlets also ran op-ed pieces criticizing the ABC’s emergency fire coverage, which otherwise received widespread praise.

Another news agency, the Australian Associated Press, said that it had been fighting “dozens and dozens” of questionable online posts as disinformation spread about the fires.

“Right now it is all bushfires. There are dozens and dozens of suspect posts,” AAP executive director Bruce Davidson told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Some are political, some are photos, some are scams.”