S1E12: Wildfire Disinformation Narratives with Dr. Steve Corman

Podcast published date: 

Nov 18, 2020


fires, rumors, antifa, starting, misinformation, people, narrative, wildfires, forest fires, events, glenn beck, sources, firefighters, twitter, left, tweet, gender reveal party, equivalent, story, oregon


Shawn Walker, Michael Simeone, Steve Corman


Michael Simeone  00:00

This is Misinfo Weekly, a somewhat weekly program about misinformation in our time. Misinfo Weekly is made by the Unit for Data Science and Analytics at Arizona State University Library. 

Today is September 25, 2020. And today we're talking about some of the misinformation circulating around the recent wildfires on the west coast in California and Oregon. And we have a guest with us today, Dr. Steve Corman, who's a professor of strategic communication in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. He's also the director of the Center for Strategic Communication

Steve, you've been following this, as we've been following this this week? What's that been like?


Steve Corman  00:40

It's been strange, because a couple of weeks ago, I heard these rumors there that there were dueling rumors that both left wing activists and right wing activists had been starting the fires in Oregon. And so there was an effort to track that down. But it didn't turn out exactly the way I thought. 


Michael Simeone  00:57

You had been tracking how they were rumors kind of spanning both sides of the political spectrum, where there are people who were alleging that actually, there were other kinds of extreme right organizations that might be responsible for the fires, does that sum it up?


Steve Corman  01:10

That's correct. And the reason I was so interested in the, the sort of dueling rumors is that we're doing a research project on Russian disinformation in Europe. And as although we're not looking at the United States, as we all know, that sort of the Russian modus operandi is to sort of stir up sentiment on both sides of emotional issues. So it seems like this might be a tailor made case of Russians basically playing both sides of the controversy.


Michael Simeone  01:40

Okay. And Shawn, you've also been tracking some of the information online on a couple different platforms. What are what, what's the kind of high level view of some of the things that you've seen before we dive a little deeper?


Shawn Walker  01:52

Sure. So one of the things I've noticed over the past week or so, is that the social media platforms are starting to remove some of this content related to the rumors that either Antifa or more far right groups militias are starting the fires. So the content over time is decreasing as the platform's remove it. But some of the initial posts are basically sort of equating, you know, one of the fires was started via a gender reveal party, a party. And there's like this initial link between, well, a gender reveal party, so therefore, that's LGBTQA. That's Antifa. That's the BLM. So therefore, it's the Democrats. So therefore, Antifa starting the fires, and this is sort of the genesis of the snowball, as it starts to go downhill and gain some traction. And then we found some other examples of how that gets picked up by, you know, some of the far right media and then that moves into the mainstream media over time, and then it starts to become what seems like a legitimate rumor, but it's not.


Michael Simeone  02:54

So to sketch this out then, we have a rash of wildfires in the western states, we have, then the genesis of some rumors, and social media posts that start to allege that it's not actually climate change that's causing these fires. It's actually Antifa, or far left, malicious, or activists or extremists who are starting these fires. And then as this progresses a little bit, we start to get some people suggesting that there are counter theories, that actually these fires are being started by far right organizations like the Proud Boys or the Boogaloos. Amidst all of this, then we have a kind of distortion field around this event, so that it's difficult to or more difficult to ascribe causality to these fires. 

So you may say, Oh, well, it's been a very hot summer, it's been very dry, that may have something to do with climate change. A lot of these rumors now are suggesting that we can't trust that information that in fact, something else is going on instead. And it's on purpose, and it's nefarious. 

So let's think through what kinds of pieces of information are swirling around to create this distortion field. Let's start off with the initial set of rumors that start to get people to think that actually these wildfires were started by far left anarchist radicals. 

Shawn, what are you seeing in some of the data that you collected? Does it all start with the gender reveal party?


Shawn Walker  04:38

The data that I'm able to collect now, it looks like it's it is a genesis is this gender reveal party? And then because there was a lot of coverage in the news of this gender reveal party, although I don't think we actually know the gender of the baby at the end of the party, but...


Michael Simeone  04:53

That information never really made it to the headlines, it seems.


Shawn Walker  04:57

No, I mean, that was sort of after watching some of this. I was like, what's the gender of the baby, but that's neither here nor there.


Steve Corman  05:03

It's probably the ambiguous gender.


Shawn Walker  05:06

Very Antifa-like, at least that's what the accusation is in some of the data. So then that that narrative starts to twist a bit as some of these more conservative or far right Facebook groups that I've been looking at, they're starting to twist that narrative towards well, gender reveal party, this is in California. And all of a sudden, now there's this, they're trying to create this one to one relationship between that gender reveal party and then say, well, that's something Antifa was doing so Antifa is starting these fires.


Michael Simeone  05:37

And Steve, you've been covering, you know, how narratives shape misinformation? Or that narratives are kind of these, the bones of a lot of different specific incidents of misinformation for you know, a good while now, is that an effective equivalency to draw, how can you get away with doing something like that by saying, gender reveal party equals Black Lives Matter? Equals Antifa? Why does that work or doesn't work at all?


Steve Corman  06:02

Boy, I'm just I'm a little bit baffled by the gender reveal party aspect of that, but I mean, the rest of it, you know, it's basically tapping into widely accepted stories, at least in certain political circles. And you know, everything Antifa does is bad. Black Lives Matter equals Antifa. They're all terrorists and anarchists. So, you know, of course, they're setting fires. So it just, it buys into a narrative rationality that's very common in certain political circles.


Michael Simeone  06:35

And in that narrative rationality, what's the belief about what does Antifa want? Is it...does it ever get specific? What is Antifa? If Antifa is the enemy? Why are Antifa's objectives?


Steve Corman  06:48

Antifa's objectives are chaos, followed by socialism, I think. You know, it's the same kind of themes we hear out of certain political candidates.


Michael Simeone  06:57

So it's kind of like the political equivalent of Underpants Gnomes from South Park, you know, step one, create chaos. Step two, step three, socialism. 


Steve Corman  07:06

Perfect example. Further forest animals, maybe. 


Michael Simeone  07:11

Yeah, maybe that too. It's just as deadly. Shawn, you had you had picked up on that there's that photograph that had been circulating around Twitter and Facebook, of the antifa radicals with some cans of fuel kneeling in the forest. Can you talk a little bit about that image that you are tracking down?


Shawn Walker  07:32

Which image is this now?


Michael Simeone  07:35

There are so many, you know, I looked at commentary on one of them. And it said like, Look, the red helmets, they're wearing red helmets, which means leaders. So we have three leaders out there in the woods lighting fires.


Shawn Walker  07:47

I thought, so, I see. So there's this image, I believe when you're referring to this image of actually group of firefighters holding, a like Antifa flag. So it says "antifascist action", they have a couple chainsaws with them. And then on one of the firefighters back, there's a can which I would argue is probably a water can. But it's red. And so there's some accusations around that, that, you know, this can that the firefighters have on their back that this is actually fuel and they're starting the fires.


Michael Simeone  08:21

Yeah, there are a couple different versions of this image going around on Twitter that went around on Twitter that we captured. And there's a red circle with an arrow pointing at this red and on on someone's back saying these are Antifa arsonists, when in fact, the original image was trying to say that here are some, you know, politically left firefighters. Really different interpretation. But it almost reminds me of the Wayfair conspiracy incident where other kinds of things where there's this participatory element to creating the misinformation. Like see, I saw a canister on their back, it must be filled with fuel. You know, maybe they need fuel for their chainsaw, which is also in the foreground and chainsaws are really important for firefighters. So if you don't know anything about this, then it's very easy to say, well, they just have a can of gas and they're going to start a fire that way. Yeah, there definitely seems to be this kind of Where's Waldo. QAnon addition flavor to what we're looking at here.


Shawn Walker  09:19

Well, and there's this issue, similar to you know, with Wayfair, that until you prove this 100% beyond a shadow of a doubt false, that that's not gas that's being used to start the fires. I'm not going to believe that. So how do you? How do you disprove or contextualize this image for someone who basically doesn't want to believe? 


Michael Simeone  09:40

And in addition to that picture, there's a number of different tweets that started going around the 13th and 14, one of them. Actually, it's the same text, but it's actually coming from different Twitter accounts. And what I mean by that is, it's the exact same tweet. But normally, you get that when somebody retweets somebody else. In this instance, you see multiple copies of the same tweet, text show up as being originated from a handful of different Twitter accounts. The text of the tweet is "remember" (or remember's misspelled) "that day that you said Antifa will be designated as a terrorist group? WTF are you waiting for? LAW AND ORDER!!!" All capitals, triple exclamation point, hashtag, Whiskey, Alfa Romeo. Steve, when you see something like that, What, Where does your mind go? When you see that kind of phenomenon? And that kind of text?


Steve Corman  10:40

Oh, well, it's a it's a dog whistle, right? It's, it's sort of a call to action. You know, you've seen these people causing chaos long enough. When are you gonna man up and do something about it? It's kind of what, what the message says to me.


Michael Simeone  10:55

And so it's no surprise that they've added the President's Twitter account, multiple, when you see multiple parties, adding the President with the exact same message, but they are not retweeting one another. What does that say to you?


Steve Corman  11:10

Well, it's a sort of a classic red flag if a coordinated inauthentic behavior, right? It's that somebody has written this tweet and distributed to a bunch of people, perhaps, bots, that are all posting it at the same time to gain more traction with the message.


Michael Simeone  11:26

Yeah, and that last little bit about Whiskey Alfa Romeo, back to this idea of dog whistling that we're at war ties really nicely into this isn't only or exclusively a dog whistle that QAnon but this is if you do want to dog whistle QAnon and talking about us being at war, and that you need to be a soldier in this war. That's certainly an effective way to get at that kind of community as well.


Steve Corman  11:52

Well, sure. And not only QAnon but the militia groups and, you know, armed right wing groups and so forth. Yeah.


Michael Simeone  11:59

There's a lot of information or misinformation or disinformation spreading around about the origin of the wildfires that alleges that the the far political left, both exists and is at fault for these wildfires. Now thinking, you know, one of the things that caught your eyes, as you mentioned is, you know, is there a both sides to this? When you were thinking through that problem? What did you find?


Steve Corman  12:23

Well, you know, as I mentioned before, I really expected to find more on the sort of right wing version of the or right wing culprit version of the story. And I started looking around and you know, much to my surprise, I just didn't find very much. I went into Twitter, I could find nothing about Oregon and fire and Proud Boys or Boogaloo on Twitter. I did the same searches on Reddit. I didn't find anything there. I just doing a web search, I was able to find one article by an AP reporter named Allie Swenson on September 10, who said, there were Facebook posts, some of which blame far left Antifa activists and others that said the far right group, the Proud Boys, were responsible for the fires. So I went into Facebook and did some searching around and only found one post, mentioning these rumors, and that was by state representative Julie Fahey, who is in a district representing Eugene Bethel and Junction City, Oregon on September 11. And she said as part of sort of a multi threaded post, fires are not being set by Antifa or Proud Boys, Trump supporters, communists, liberals, or Russians, all rumors I've heard in the last couple of days. These were basically the only references the far right groups I was able to find, which leaves me wondering, you know, where are these rumors came from? And indeed, you know, how prevalent they were, I guess.


Michael Simeone  14:00

I was able to find a few dozen tweets that tried to draw a line. And that line may be made of red yarn on a cork board, but is trying to draw a line between the fires and Russian influence. But you know, there's no way it's at all symmetrical with what we were just talking about with some of the rumors about Antifa. 


Steve Corman  14:21



Michael Simeone  14:21

I mean, in a situation like this, where you see somebody come out and say, Hey, here's all these rumors. I've heard all of them, but only one of them has a substantial online presence. You know, what do you make of something like that?


Steve Corman  14:34

Michael, I don't know what to make of it. I mean, if one possibility is what you mentioned earlier, is that these things have been taken down by the social media companies. But then that sort of begs the question of why more of the ones blaming the Antifa radicals weren't taken down as well. So it's really a bit of a mystery to me is where we got these reports, which as I said, I heard at the time, but haven't been able to track down.


Michael Simeone  15:01

Yeah, this puts us in a difficult situation, I think, methodologically. Meaning we are using Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms as information sources to make inferences about misinformation events, because oftentimes, that is the misinformation event. It's not the only place you can have a misinformation event.


Steve Corman  15:21



Michael Simeone  15:21

It's  altogether possible that this could have been a word of mouth campaign. And that it was very local, for instance, that it may be possible that people in the northwest were talking about this. But they weren't, it never really made it to Twitter. So that's, that's a possibility. Hearing from you about this, I also wonder how much of it is a rhetorical to make position all of these things as equivalent in the same literally put them all in the same breath, and to create to achieve some kind of political end? But that's...those are the two possibilities that I'm thinking of right now.


Steve Corman  15:55

Yeah, exactly. I kind of like that idea. You know, you could certainly imagine some, if they're not, if not Antifa activist, some left wing type saying, well, all these rumors are going around about us starting the fires, let's start some about the right wing starting the fires to sort of equalize things a little bit. 


Michael Simeone  16:14

What's remarkable to me, is still that there just isn't it never made it to Twitter, it never made it to Facebook. And I don't know if that's because or, you know, there's not really an easy way to know, I should say, if that's just the result of the nature of the rumor that it was just a kind of grassroots thing that went person to person or if it never really got enough legs to show up on social media, you know, so there's this question of is its appearance on Twitter and Facebook evidence of the fact that it's gained a lot of traction, and it's kind of made it into social media? Or is it just some stuff only exists on social media? But there's plenty of other things to talk about?


Steve Corman  16:48

Right? Well, I mean, it also leaks out into more mainstream sources, I guess you could say. So I believe you're the one that found the RT article about the protesters starting fires. And you know, if you go and look at that, it's just it's full of images of fire and Antifa protesters, right. So trying trying to draw that connection. But here again, we don't see anything about right wing participants.


Michael Simeone  17:14

Yeah, Shawn, you've got that article up right now.


Shawn Walker  17:16

Right. So I think this is a second narrative that conflates the protests in the coverage of Antifa as radical protesters that are starting fires that are fighting with the police. They combine that coverage, plus some of the FBI documentation about confronting the rise in anti semitic domestic terrorism. So that actually that's circulating a lot in some of these comments, some FBI documents, plus some comments that the attorney general has made. And they make that jump between what's happening in the protests and the coverage of the protests, which some of the coverages I think we can say bombastic in some ways.


Michael Simeone  17:56

Yeah, it's our friends that RT again, with some really high production video on their site, right?


Shawn Walker  18:01

Yeah, you see this video of a protester, of lighting a fire then the protester actually lights themself on fire accidentally, they're trying to put that fire out. It's very dramatic. And then there are a whole host of, of tweets that they embed in the story. And then that's getting a lot of pretty wide circulation in some of these rumors. And then that gets combined with, like, for example, Glenn Beck also covered the story in his show. And in the episode on the 14th of September, it actually seems like he's debunking the Antifa connection to the wildfires. That's sort of the first quarter of the segment on Antifa and the wildfires. So he says the states have said Antifa, is not starting the wildfires. There's a whole host of social media posts from local sheriff's offices, that just begging people to stop calling them about Antifa starting the wildfires, because the rumors aren't true. And they need to not expend resources on investigating these rumors versus dealing with the fires at hand. But then Glenn Beck does this whole turn about and starts to, you know, well, the federal government, you know, the Justice Department saying this about Antifa we have these questions, then all of a sudden, he starts this line of questioning. "Well, I just want you to have the information. This is just something to think about. Are we really sure? Does this really line up?" to basically sort of like widen this gap, to then make it seem like this rumor is more legitimate than it is.


Michael Simeone  19:28

So we are in a world where if a story is on RT or Russia Today, that is a mainstream outlet. And if Joe Rogan, whose podcast is, you know, circulated by Spotify, that's mainstream and Glenn Beck, certainly, that's mainstream. So what we're seeing here then, is an adoption of these rumors and sometimes a correction. As we were talking about earlier, Shawn correction always travels a lot slower than the initial message, but we have these messages that are literally tying. Like, fire in a brand is they're trying to make that the brand of the political left, right. So RT, even the cover art for the Glenn Beck radio piece, or I'm sorry, I think it was like a video instead but I associate him with radio. But you know, fire is the brand.


Shawn Walker  20:18

I think the extreme right is trying to brand Antifa as fire and destruction. 


Michael Simeone  20:24

Right? Yeah, exactly, exactly.


Shawn Walker  20:26

And so, you know, what's more fire and destruction than a wildfire? And what's more comfortable? So if we go back to sort of emotional feelings, what we want to believe or do not want to believe, say about climate change, if you don't want to believe climate change, or strongly do not believe climate change, which is easier for you to kind of hitch your horse to that, you know, a gender reveal party by some liberals that are part of Antifa started a wildfire, or actually, it's just really dang hot outside. And this is the new climate change reality, we need to do something about it. If you don't want to believe that second part, then you have to, you know, go back to the first.


Michael Simeone  21:04

Why is this believable? Because this seems relatively simple. Just show pictures of people with fire associated with it, and all of a sudden, fire is just their thing? Why would anyone believe that Antifa wants to burn down forests? 


Steve Corman  21:18

Well, it's probably just the, you know, sort of constant association of the two. So you know, it's the same reason Presidents try to wrap themselves in the flag and so forth. Right? It's it's a sort of an image based argument where two things are constantly associated. And, you know, I think over time, that just starts to build up an association in the brains of certain audience members that link the two together. And that's kind of what's so pernicious about the RT article, you know, we've been talking about is that they're just images image after image and videos associating Antifa with fires, and it says, The police are asking protesters not to start fires, because there's a wildfire emergency. So it just sort of wraps everything up in the same package. Right, the protesters are creating anarchy, they're setting fires, there are forest fires, too, the anarchists are probably responsible for those, we have to do something.


Michael Simeone  22:17

Yeah, I mean, there's something elemental to this right, fire is literally entropy, right. And we, you know, by by casting, Antifa as the kind of socio-political equivalent of entropy, then they're both, you know, agents of chaos and a lot of argument by insinuation. And this goes back to what you were talking about Shawn, with that with some of the rhetorical strategies of Glenn Beck, which is, I'm just a man asking questions, or this is just some information you should have, without really standing behind those claims. Did you want to break down a little bit about some of those lines there? Or why you think it was such an effective insinuation, even if it wasn't a full throated endorsement of some of these things?


Shawn Walker  22:57

Well, I think it's fairly effective because it, it legitimizes argument that that wouldn't be legitimate otherwise. So we can't really make a logical argument that we, you know, there's no evidence that Antifa is doing this. So instead, the, you know, this is something to think about, you know, why would the government be saying this? Does this really explain everything? You know, the denials by the state government that Antifa's involved with the sheriff department that this is involved. And then Glenn Beck keeps asking this question, like, does this denial explain everything if Antifa is not doing this? Well, then who is? And so I think this legitimizes the questioning and sort of opens the door in a way that you can't if you try to make a logical argument, because in reality, there isn't a logical argument, because there's very little evidence at all, for Antifa, or far right wing group starting this.


Steve Corman  23:52

Yeah, you know, it obscures the possibility that nobody's doing it, but it's being started by lightning, right?


Michael Simeone  23:57

Yeah, or, you know, the forest being, you know, as dry as tortilla chips. So, insinuation seems like one way to make something appear to be true when you have no like, rational argument for showing that it's true. But what are some other ways to make something true?


Steve Corman  24:16

One way is that if authorities promote them, so the extent that Glenn Beck has an authority for some people, his questioning could, you know, lend a lot of legitimacy for, for those people.


Michael Simeone  24:29

When people use a kind of insinuating or motif based way of trying to associate people with bad ideas. That's another way of maybe making it have more purchase in people's minds. And then when you accompany that with people who are trustworthy or prominent, those are all some of those contributing factors to make something that's not true, feel true.


Shawn Walker  24:52

And there's also this technique and I want to read an excerpt from the Glenn Beck episode or at least the summary of it. Is that, you know. "Well is this really all sources? We want to consider all sources." He keeps repeating that throughout the episode. So the the intro to the episode is "Who do we trust? Because while a police chief in Oregon and a leader in the US forestry service said, there is no truth to the rumors that Antifa supporters started some of the wildfires in California and Oregon, officials elsewhere are telling a different story. In fact, several people in both states have already been caught arrested and charged with attempts of arson. So we must pay attention to ALL" (and all in caps), "ALL sources, because if not, we'll miss the truth."


Michael Simeone  25:42

What do you get from that? Yeah?


Steve Corman  25:44

Well, it turns out that's not true either that people have been arrested for starting forest fires.


Shawn Walker  25:49

Correct. So there's, but notice, there's no sort of citation of evidence. And if you listen to the entire episode, there's actually zero citation of evidence for the claims that people have been arrested for starting fires. And it's very interesting that you think the authority is your local police officials in the forestry service, the file service fire service in Oregon, CAL FIRE in California, they're all saying no, and they're begging people just to stop, stop repeating this, but this call at the end of "well, there are all these sources, there's another source" or he's also basically pitting some of the federal government reports about protesters in, you know, Portland and in larger cities, and pitting that against the wildfires as if they're on parody. And they're not, they're not about the same thing.


Steve Corman  26:41

As if all sources are equally credible, too, right? I mean, just the fact that there are more sources, isn't a reason that you should pay attention to those sources.


Shawn Walker  26:52

So we go back to this theme that we've talked about in many episodes of expertise. So you know, I would consider Calfire, Oregon fire, the US forestry service, the actual firefighters, local sheriff's departments to be experts on what's happening right now as trusted sources of information. But there's this attempt to then say, Well, there are these other sources I found online, I've seen social media posts, and those are equivalent to the Forest Service.


Steve Corman  27:17

Right. Right.


Shawn Walker  27:21

You know, like, the Forest Service just gets their information from Twitter and Facebook to, right?


Steve Corman  27:26

Yeah, of course, where else would they get it?


Shawn Walker  27:29

Not the actual firefighters and the work they're doing on the ground. 

But I think this technique is, you know, I think it's really important, like, what you're pointing out, is that, you know, not all sources are equal. Not all sources are credible. But there's an attempt when there's a lack of evidence to start to say, well, we're not considering all sources. So we have to pause for a second. 


Michael Simeone  27:51

But this goes back to another thing that we point out, which is another way to make something true that isn't necessarily true, is to point to a single piece of evidence and say, Look, this person is caught in the, in the forest with a machete and gas and the police arrested them. And then using that as evidence for an entire Antifa conspiracy. So that kind of using meta inimical thinking, right? Where part stands in for the whole, there's just a really, you know, just seems like it's widespread here, where you can just, you know, take one newspaper clipping and say, See, this is the rest of my theory, you should definitely you should definitely trust me here. But this is the vast conspiracy because one guy is caught in the woods with a machete.


Steve Corman  28:33

Right? It's the sort of classic idea of the disinformation is most effective when there's a grain of truth. Yeah, around which a bigger narrative is built.


Michael Simeone  28:45

Yeah, and you even see people using web archiving technology, Shawn. You know, people who will take newspaper clippings and get them on web archive, they will share them on Twitter from the web archive, even though the story itself is still published on the newspaper. And there's this implication when you share it from a web archive that this has been deleted, because no one wants you to know when in fact, the story is, it's still up.


Shawn Walker  29:09

That's an interesting idea. I'm never I'm not sure whether the Internet Archive lends legitimacy in some groups, but maybe it does. You would think. 


Michael Simeone  29:18

Well, this is archive.is 


Shawn Walker  29:20

That's a similar service to the Internet Archive. It's not as large but it's a another web archiving tool, where people curate more their own personal collections rather than the Internet Archive curates larger portions of the web.


Michael Simeone  29:33

Okay, yeah, but a very interesting rhetorical move to link something in your personal archive versus... So, when we take into consideration the total kind of distortion surrounding these events, we have this catastrophe going on across multiple states. We have competing rumors about which Antifa people did what where we see it actually entered the mainstream and start to get attention, and that, what does that do? What's the kind of long term or even short term effect of this kind of distortion field? 


Steve Corman  30:08

I guess you could say one effect of the distortion field is to distract attention away from what's probably the real problem, i.e. in this case, climate change, drying out forests, preventing rain that would keep forest fires from spreading, and so forth. So, as long as you think that's not really the process behind it, and instead, it's these evil people with an evil ideology, so evil that causes them to go out and set forest fires, then that's what we should really be paying attention to. Right? Not the not the facts about what's the most likely cause?


Michael Simeone  30:47

Yeah, you're going to be very, you know, forest fires require money and resources to to be mitigated. And it feels like it's much harder to make any kinds of decisions or get any kind of consensus, or close to consensus about, you know, resourcing, the mitigation of fires, when there's all of these rumors swirling that it might, it might actually be somebody's fault.


Shawn Walker  31:12

You know, a big conversation that's emerging is, you know, this forest fire management policy, who funds it? Who's responsible? Because, you know, in California, the vast majority of forest lands are managed by the federal government and not the state of California. So there's a difference in policy. How do you harmonize that? So this impacts the conversation, you know, what confidence do you have in CAL FIRE, the BLM the National Park Service to manage these fires? And what do we want to fund versus, well, this is a police issue where we need to militarize the police more so that they can get rid of these Antifa arsonists.


Michael Simeone  31:49

Yeah, it entices or even demands a military response, instead of a policy response.


Shawn Walker  31:57

And the military response, I would say is more of kind of a more simple, straightforward response, versus this much more complicated, probably going to be much more inconvenient, because this requires a whole host of policy changes throughout our whole policy ecosystem to address climate change and forest fires. Versus, well, if we just arrest the right people, this is going to go away and not come back next year.


Steve Corman  32:19

Yeah, great, great point. 


Michael Simeone  32:20

All of a sudden, we're starting to this is starting to remind us of what we saw with the Oroville Dam misinformation that we talked about a little while ago. Where the dam is completely overloaded. Hundreds of thousands of people are in danger. And people are taking to Twitter to blame the legal immigrants for the lack of infrastructure funding for the dam, which doesn't help anybody. And again, it kind of creates this equation where you just eliminate the bad people, or the people you don't like, then all of a sudden that somehow fixes the problem or makes everything right again.


Steve Corman  32:55

So all this puts me in mind of this topic I brought up earlier, which is narrative rationality. And the important thing about narrative rationality is that it doesn't have to be logical, it just has to be coherent, sort of on its own terms. And it also has to sort of resonate with other stories that you have heard and believed to be true. And kind of one thing we've been doing a lot of research on is how these narratives can form systems. And so you know, elements of one narrative can lend credibility to elements of another narrative. And so these things sort of become wrapped up together, right, so that the, you know, what we were talking about before, there's this evil anarchist force called Antifa, they're doing all of these bad things, they're starting fires, well, it makes perfect sense, then that they would go out and start forest fires. So obviously, that's what that's what's happening. And that in turn, validates this other narrative that we need more law enforcement to track down these narrative people and put them in jail. And that will be good because if we build up law enforcement in jails, they'll be, we'll be able to put more illegal immigrants in there. So these things start becoming wrapped together in a big sort of network of actors and events and motives and so forth.


Michael Simeone  34:15

Yeah, like in, in systems theory, it would be autopoiesis right? His ideas are your system is just gonna be it's so it's so well developed, that it can basically just spin out its own structures and reproduce itself.


Steve Corman  34:30

Right. It's so it's so the the the narrative system becomes generative, in a sense, right? So it provides structures that you can hook into to craft different narrative trajectories that sort of support a common idea.


Michael Simeone  34:44

And before you know it, you're on the Wayfair website, googling the names of, you know, buffet furniture, doing your own research, and you just, it's easy for someone to see something in random data. And you know, when you take that into account, narrative, it's easy for people when they're emotionally invested in the outcome to be able to just cherry pick ideas or things that they observe and turn that into a narrative and start participating in that system that you mentioned. 

Steve Corman  35:11

Right. And especially when there's a narrative, some structure there, they can draw on and sort of slot things into.


Shawn Walker  35:17

So there's, so a great example of this this week. And I know I send it to Michael. Steve I'm sorry, I haven't sent it to you yet. I don't know if you saw there's a TikTok fireman who from Hawaii went viral this week, and actually jumped from TikTok to the mainstream media. And he was duetting, which is this practice where someone makes a Tic Tock video, and then another user can then sort of play that video and sort of speak over it and respond to it. And so he was doing a video that showed the US wildfire map, and this other Tic Tock user was saying, well, we really want to think about this. It's very weird. Do you notice that all of the fires on this map, the fires somehow know where the borders of the countries are? And notice the fires? Don't go into Canada? Yes. Don't just stop at the border. Like, like the Customs and Border Patrol, that's the solution to our problem. They just stop at the border. And customs is like you don't have a passport. So you can't come in?


Steve Corman  36:14

Yeah. And the wall, maybe a wall would do it too.


Shawn Walker  36:18

But you know, there's firemen then duette's this and says, Well, of course the the fire stop at the border, because this is a US fire map in the United States doesn't chart the fires in Canada or Mexico. It's only in the United States. And he went viral for this. And he's been you know, so then this user who created the initial rumors on TikTok, then they started, she keeps producing rumors. And he keeps continually, you know, duetting them and trying to rebut them, and he's become famous for this. So I think this is just another example of, you know, saying, well, these fires are actually false and manmade. And look, they don't go into Canada. So something is fishy here. And it's this sort of perverse logic, because at first, if you see this. I showed this to my students in my class this week, and at first my students stopped, and they're like, Well, why did they stop at the border? That's crazy. That's wild. What's going on? Because at first, you get drawn into this kind of, yeah, whoa. 


Michael Simeone

What a compelling pattern.


Shawn Walker

Like, what's the magic of the border? Are there sprinklers on the border? Like what's happening? And then I said, well, you realize, think about who produces this map? And my students are like, well, it's the US government. And I was like, well, with the US government, map out fires in Canada.?And they're like, Oh, that makes so much sense. Or, as the firefighter, you know, says, well, Canada probably has a different forestry management policies in the US. And also, it's up north, so it's not as dry. Like, here's a picture of a heat map of the United States of, you know, the weather that's happening. And notice, see the fires, see where the temperatures are really high. See, where there hasn't been any rain? Look at Canada, it's cooler, there's been rain. So. But at first, there's this sort of compelling argument where you look at this map, and you're like, this visualization, you're like, Whoa, it stops. Oh, my God, right?


Steve Corman  38:04

Yeah, But we're just asking questions.


Michael Simeone  38:07

Just asking questions. That's right.


Shawn Walker  38:08

I just want to consider all sources and all possibilities. 


Michael Simeone  38:12

When you look at the, when you look at at what we call a natural disaster, right? We, it's always a kind of tragic labeling of these things as natural disasters, because, right, the history of how human beings have lived with events like this always indicates that there are inevitable human components to how these events impact human populations, right. So management and response and resilience are always part of this story.


Shawn Walker  38:41

I think also, the argument you're making is fairly complex. There's these interlocking systems that we really can't pull apart. And so that's takes a lot of breath to explain. 


Michael Simeone



Shawn Walker

And it's much easier to say, Antifa starting these fires done, here's a solution done. Now let's walk away.


Michael Simeone  39:00

Yeah. So where do we,what do we take away from something like this? The fires haven't gone away. But what can we learn from this misinformation event as it continues to be ongoing?


Steve Corman  39:15

What one one thing is, it seems to me like, you know, ideologues or disinformers or misinformers missed no opportunity to seize on a tragedy to sort of advance their own ideological interests. I mean, it seems like there's opportunism here to me.


Shawn Walker  39:36

I also think it's important to be wary of these tactics. So be aware of, of people who only ask questions but don't provide any evidence or concrete information. They're just, you know, or they don't vet their sources and they treat everything as equivalent. So these almost end up being in a form kind of like a sinkhole that just sort of basically sucks out your foundation and then you can fall into this trap of mis and disinformation.


Michael Simeone  40:00

They're not just trying to be like literary theory professors from the 1980s. You're saying by only asking questions?


Shawn Walker  40:06

Know that it's not my classroom where I just my students ask a question. And then I ask them a question back and they roll their eyes at me. But that's a different. That's a different Socratic technique. This is not what Glenn Beck was doing, for example, where, you know, all sources matter, all sources are equal. And you just, you know, you just have to keep asking questions. But at some point, you have to sit down and stop and say, well, are these legitimate questions? Who are the experts? Let's really map this out. But that's not what these commentators are doing. 


Michael Simeone  40:35

You know, one thing that I see, and this is something that we saw in Paw Patrol. In the Paw Patrol incident, I should say, not after watching Paw Patrol for hours and hours or anything like that, but the thing that we saw on the Paw Patrol incident, was the role that journalism can sometimes play in, in making things seem equivalent. What I mean by that is just like in the Paw Patrol incident, where there was a New York Times story that had mentioned that the left had finally come for Paw Patrol. And it was a little ambiguous about how many tweets actually constituted the left coming for Paw Patrol. But a similar situation that we're that we're looking at here, right, Steve, some of this, the case that you've been tracking down here about there being a kind of "both sides"-ism, to the conspiracy theories around the forest fires. You know, that, that news story that kind of mentioned those things, you know, cements in the public record, this idea that somehow these are equivalent rumors phenomenon, right? When in fact, you know, either one doesn't really exist very much in one really exists, or that they have very different expressions that are worth paying attention to. But, you know, news stories oftentimes can kind of not not willfully. But incidentally, misrepresent the contours of different kinds of misinformation events.


Steve Corman  41:57

That's, That's absolutely right. And, you know, before I actually took the took the time to look into it, and I might add, it took quite a bit of time to look into it. I thought it was perfectly plausible that these both rumors were going around, and they were equivalent. And they're sort of a rumor battle going on between the two sides. And it turns out just just not to be true. And I think that's sort of a lesson for the "two sides"-ism you're talking about that there. There might be two sides, but the two sides don't deserve equal attention.


Michael Simeone  42:28

Yeah, or, you know, the thought of a different way or, or extending on that. It takes away an opportunity to say, hey, look, this one rumor is very local, and appears to be word of mouth. This other rumor appears to be very national and appears to be spreading on social media. If we're studying rumors and misinformation, we really want to be able to pay attention to the differences between something that appears to be local and word of mouth, and something that is suspiciously national, and has all kinds of expression on Twitter.


Steve Corman  42:56

And perhaps coordinated.


Michael Simeone  42:58

100, Oh, yeah. So yeah, like not it either misrepresents it, or, you know, takes away or there's an opportunity costs to representing it in that way.


Shawn Walker  43:09

And the story of high volume competing rumors is a much sexier and compelling story, then, well, there are a lot of rumors of there's these rumors of Antifa. That's, you know, this size. And then there's this very small local rumor that, you know, the Proud Boys and such are starting this, that's a much less sexy story, then we have these two strong competing rumors that are battling it out in the public discourse.


Michael Simeone  43:33

Yeah, and I mean, to be fair, if every time a human being was penalised for binary thinking, we'd all be in a lot of trouble. But it is one of those bullet holes of thinking that it's important to kind of think beyond when we can. Steve, as you're the guest of honor, and you've spent fine amount of time with us today having a conversation about these different mis and disinformation events surrounding these fires on the west coast of the United States.You get the last word today, any kind of Final thoughts that you want to leave folks with?


Steve Corman  44:02

Yeah, I've two things, I guess. One is that I sort of fell victim, I think, to this idea that if you hear it in a news story, it must be true. And I think a lot of people wouldn't go the extra, go to the extra steps that I did to sort of track down whether these were equivalent rumors. And when I did, I found out that they're not. So we have to be careful about even legitimate news outlets like the Associated Press when we hear these things, you know, we shouldn't take them without a grain of salt. 

And I guess the second thing that strikes me about this is sort of going back to the narrative issues I was talking about before, you know, I think there's this sort of grand narrative or master narrative in the United States right now that we're in a in this Titanic battle between the left and right and that, you know, they're fighting one another tooth and nail and pulling dirty tricks. And so as events like these wildfires unfold That's sort of a perfect substrate, you know, on which to hang these conspiracies and malign actions of different groups. So I think it's a bit of a manifestation of that sort of larger social narrative movement that, that these, these rumors are circulating.


Michael Simeone  45:19

Yeah. What a great set of thoughts to end on. Steve, thank you for joining us today and sharing with us some of your work and some of your thoughts.


Steve Corman  45:28

Hey, it was my pleasure. And it was really had a good time, guys.


Michael Simeone  45:32

Well, we'll have to have you back sometime soon to talk about you know, what we know for sure will be another misinformation event that I think we can do. 

Thanks, everyone for listening this week. Be thoughtful and be well

For questions or comments, use the email address datascience@asu.edu. And to check out more about what we're doing, try library.asu.edu/data