Are social media posts badly misinformed? Probably

Are social media posts badly misinformed? Probably

Spread the love

In light of the survey finding most voters are badly misinformed on well known and popular public policy issues the same is likely true about social media posts. It is likely that more than half of political or policy oriented social media posts are incorrect. But depending on who makes the posts, and how many followers they have, their incorrect posts can be influential – and plant non factual and illogical constructions in the minds of their targets.

I thought of this today after seeing numerous posts on Twitter and Facebook suggesting California would not be having such wild fire problems if more action had been taken on climate change initiatives. Similarly, there are a spate of posts saying the fires must have been started by the government because its impossible for cars to be burned but trees to have been spared (illustrating an ignorance of fire behavior).

On first glance these posts seem to make logical sense which is typical of most propaganda messaging.

But a simple question – and a little rational thinking – reveals these assertions are nonsense.

Consider: Could we reduce California wildfires if we cut human caused carbon dioxide emissions by 70%, tomorrow?

If we had a magic wand that could cut emissions by an amazing 70% tomorrow, climate models forecast a continued rise of up to 0.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Slashing emissions effective immediately will not solve the Western U.S.  historical fire problem for decades to come.

Could we reduce California wildfires if we cut human caused carbon dioxide emissions by 100%, tomorrow?

No. The earth would continue to warm for at least 40 years at which point it would stabilize at a higher temperature.

Consequently, if we wish to reduce the threat of wild fires in the West, addressing climate change is not the first priority nor possibly even the 10th priority. Other steps must be taken urgently – if we put our priority on climate emissions, we will fail to solve the fire problem for decades or centuries.

The Los Angeles Times does a good job explaining this as does Reuters, saying California has mismanaged its high risk fire problems. In an opinion column, the Oregonian blames excessive fire protection (see their chart of Oregon fire history). The Chico Enterprise-Record said that for decades everyone expected this to happen. These problems – and especially the problems in Butte County – were known in advance in a state where fire suppression has resulted in up to 10 times more trees per acre than in the 19th century. Nearly all of Butte County has burned at least once in the past 100 years and the fire danger in Paradise was well known. The President of the California Public Utilities Commission said “we have to have other solutions.” A University of Washington professor doing research on related issues posts data on local climate and vegetation dryness at the time of the fire. To illustrate the complexity, a comment to that item notes that many Ponderosa Pine trees remain alive and standing among burned out homes – suggesting home construction materials might be an issue.

There are many papers on this subject, many news articles on this subject, and many posts by scientists on this subject. (I have a list but not bothering to post all of them because I do not believe anyone cares to read through them.) You’ll find wild land fires in California are a complex problem with a very long history. We have no choice but to embrace mitigation and risk reduction, and new strategies – new zoning, new building materials, new fire protection measures, defensible spaces and controls on people.

In recent years, over 80% of fires nationally are estimated to be caused by human activity (arson, sparks from equipment, power lines, and so on) – and up to 99% in parts of California. This worsens as population increases and human activity increasingly moves into high fire danger urban/wildland boundaries. Dry weather and climate conditions amplify these human caused events in a region whose ecosystem has evolved to be dependent on fire.  The IPCC forecasts increased precipitation in the California region due to human caused climate change.

Bottom line: focusing one’s social media propaganda wrath on climate change policy will have no or minimal impact on western wildfires during the next 40 to 80 years, and if such propaganda campaigns are successful, could lead to more deaths and destruction.

When you see posts focusing on a single element solution, you are likely looking at propaganda by someone who wants you to adopt their agenda. Social media is full of many posts promoting a meme that is roughly: California fires would not be happening if the government had taken stronger actions the past two years to fight climate change.

This claim is a feel good, glittering generality that promotes activities that would not improve the fire situation in the West in our lifetime, our children’s lifetime and even our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Social media enables anyone to act as a propagandist and pass along a meme given to them by someone else – without bothering to think, without bothering to ask if the meme makes logical sense.

Many posters were responding to this callous, poorly timed, inept, inappropriate, idiotic, foolish and mean spirited comment issued immediately after the fire started:

Comments are closed.