Article By Meredith Steinberg
Since late December 2019, Australia’s fires have killed at least 25 people along with up to a billion animals, and had at least 150 arson fires. The effects of these fires have been devastating to both the environment and its inhabitants. While it is important for users to use their following on social platforms to spread awareness about urgent matters, it is also important for these users to make sure they are circulating accurate information. Amid the crisis, people have begun to use social media to spread awareness about the consequent damage of the fires and to direct people towards donation websites. Maps and pictures of Australia’s unprecedented fires have circulated widely throughout social media as well. The problem is, however, that many of these maps that have gone viral are both inaccurate and misleading.
Figure 1, created by Anthony Hearsey, has been shared widely through social media platforms, including Instagram and Twitter. The picture depicts Australia’s coastline that looks to be up in flames around significant portions of the country. While users have interpreted this image to be a current depiction of the spread of fires in Australia, the map was created to represent one month of data of locations where fire was detected. While some parts are still burning, other areas have ceased to continue. This map, therefore, is NOT a current image of Australia– it is a compilation of fires that occurred over a period of time. While it is important to recognize the impact of these fires, it is deceitful to be intentionally spreading inaccurate images of a very real disaster.
Another map shared widely on social media (Figure 2) illustrates many flame icons positioned across the country. While it has been interpreted that this map displays “all fires burning in Australia,” this map was taken from an Australian government website that documents heat sources with satellite data (Rannard, para 7). The data includes “any heat source that is hotter than its surroundings… This may include gas flares, refinery furnaces or highly reflective large industrial roofs,” (Rannard, para 9). Therefore, the symbols of flames DO NOT guarantee there is an actual fire. In addition, the heat sources mapped do not display the size of the fires or the danger posed by them. This creates ambiguity and also leaves it up for misinterpretation by the public. Other images have been shared to show the size of the affected areas by overlaying a map of Australia on top of North America and Europe. These images are also problematic due to how the curved earth distorts flat map projections. The key idea here is to check if the images that are circulated throughout social media are scientifically accurate, and to do your own research before relying on one source for the “truth”.
BBC News has created a visual guide to the fires in order to show people factual data about Australia’s current situation. The maps and visualizations created use a range of data sources. For more information, click here.