Australia’s bushfire emergency has been shared worldwide with images of devastation, injured koalas and confronting fires going viral.
- Celebrities like Rihanna have helped send some incorrect maps of Australia’s bushfire crisis viral
- Experts say NASA images of Australia that appear to show blazes are just picking up other isolated “hotspots”, which aren’t fires
- Other maps use oversized graphics, which give the impression a greater area is on fire than is actually true
But among the posts there has been misinformation.
Some tweets using #ArsonEmergency on Twitter were amplifying unproven suggestions arson had been the overwhelming cause of the recent blazes, according to an ABC investigation into many of the suspicious accounts.
And several widely shared maps that look to show blazes all over the country, including most of Queensland and the Northern Territory, have sometimes left locals puzzled when they spot these images on social media.
So what’s causing all the confusion?
Photographer ‘didn’t realise’ 3D graphic would go viral
Tweet @Rihanna: devastating #Australia
An image by Brisbane photographer Anthony Hearsey was spread around the world, with high-profile stars like singer Rihanna sharing it on Twitter.
It has since been flagged by Facebook and Instagram as “false information”.
On social media, Mr Hearsey, who said he “didn’t realise this would go viral”, added it was flagged by the tech giant because those sharing it said it was an actual NASA photograph, when it was really a 3D visualisation.
“This has occurred not because of this post, or my information being inaccurate,” he said on his post.
“Scale is a little exaggerated due to the render’s glow, but generally true to the info from the NASA website.”
It is that image that a senior research scientist at the CSIRO, Dr Juan Guerschman, said had prompted him to look into the misleading map issue.
“A friend of mine sent [it to] me, ‘Is this really a photo taken from space?’ and I had to say ‘No, no it’s not what things look like from space,'” Dr Guerschman said.
He said it all came down to so-called “hotspot” data picked up by satellites.
“They measure how hot or cold the surface is, and when a particular pixel is very hot, they classify it as a hotspot,” he said.
“Some other things like volcanos or a very warm chimney in a factory can also be picked up.
“But basically if it’s a hot pixel, then it’s likely to be a fire.”
Dr Guerschman said the problem was when those data points gave an inaccurate impression, by either suggesting something out of scale or covering a really long time period.
“These two things combined lead to the worst results,” he said.
“So a big blob, a big circle are sometimes misleading and suggesting that the area that is actually burning is bigger than what it really is, that’s when these images that having been flying [around] in social media, in my view, are sometimes misleading.”
Another map that has been widely spread on social media comes from MyFireWatch, hosted by the West Australian Government’s land information authority, Landgate.
It has been shared around the world and Dr Guerschman said when users zoom out too far on maps such as these: “The map ends up with lots of flames all around the place”.
“The user may end up with a false impression that much more of the area is burning than what it really is, which is bad already anyway.”
Twitter @falamb3 Just a reminder. The #AustraliaFires map…the whole continent has become a large inferno… #ClimateEmergency #AustralianBushfire
The MyFireWatch website says it is intended for community users, especially those living in regional Australia, to help them prepare for fire threats near them and flags that the symbols do not indicate the blaze’s size.
“MyFireWatch shows ‘hotspots’ detected from satellite observations to inform communities, particularly in regional and remote areas, of the threat of fire activity,” a Landgate spokesperson said.
“The different colours of the icons represent how long it has been since a hotspot was detected; red being more recent and orange/yellow being two to three days old.
“The site provides information on how to interpret the information. The site directs users to local emergency services for current alerts.”
It is also created through satellite data, which means there is a time delay so it cannot be used for active fire threats.
“The program relies on automated processing of satellite imagery for information, which undergoes a quality assurance check by Landgate to remove errors,” the spokesperson said.
“We are currently reviewing options to improve the symbology and information provided on MyFireWatch to ensure it is effective and clearly understood.”
In Mr Hearsey’s case, Dr Guerschman said it could be easily taken out of context by other social media users.
“Sometimes we can’t really prevent those things from happening … he didn’t really want to pass the wrong message, but that happens all the time,” he said.
The ABC has contacted Mr Hearsey for comment.
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