The Australian bushfire crisis has shown the best and worst of social media 

Facebook fundraisers have raised millions, Instagram influencers have urged their followers to donate, and Twitter has been mobilised for causes like FindABed. But social media has also been used to spread misinformation and scams during this bushfire crisis, Marnie Vinall explains.

During the current devastating bushfire crisis in Australia, social media has played a key role in our response as a country. As the nation-wide disaster continues to unfurl, it’s been instrumental in disseminating coverage and bringing us together. 

But social media has also shown us its worst. While much-needed fundraisers have raised millions for those in need, damaging misinformation has also spread and deflected from the voices we need to be listening to. 

Influencers, who often get a bad rap, have truly proven their worth by using their platforms for good, raising much-needed funds. Most notably, actress, author and Instagram influencer Celeste Barber set up a fundraiser for the RFS on Facebook, which, to date, has raised over $50m via 1.2m individual donations.

It’s been a true testament to the power of people when we rally together. As Barber said on her Instagram Stories, most of that $50m has been raised not through large donations but through $10, $20 and $50 donations. 

Additionally, celebrities and sporting stars have run auctions to raise money for various bushfire appeals, using social media to promote these events. Australian cricket legend Shane Warne, for example, auctioned off his baggy green cap for $1,007,500 to raise funds for the Australian Red Cross bushfire appeal.

And Essendon Football Club’s captain Dyson Heppell offered to shave his beloved trademark locks if his GoFundMe for those affected by the Gippsland fires reached $50K. He ended up spurring the AFL community to open their wallets and, in doing so, raised close to $300,000

Social media has been fundamental in practically helping those affected. For example, UTS PhD student and comms consultant Erin Riley set up FindABed in response to the emergency, which connects a database of volunteers with those who need somewhere to stay.

Riley gathered the database through multiple call outs on Twitter, and has also been using the platform to post specific call outs for people in need. For example, she recently asked her 10,600 Twitter followers if anyone knew of a holiday house in Merimbula to house a couple in their 70s who were unable to return to their home due to ongoing fire risk. 


However, it hasn’t been all good on the social media front.

An ABC investigation found that misinformation has spread rapidly across Twitter with the hashtag #ArsonEmergency, but a lot of accounts using the hashtag were bots. It was also reported that an article claiming left-wing eco-terrorists were responsible for lightening the blazes was shared 100,000 times across Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, reaching 2.8m accounts. 

This distortion of the truth is particularly harmful as it deflects from fire and emergency chiefs’ recommendations on hazard reduction and vital information on how Australian fire seasons are expected to get longer, hotter and more catastrophic in the future. 

Scientists have linked the NSW mega fires to climate change, but misinformation about eco-terrosists and arsonists turns attention away from this truth and, in doing so, halts the action needed to combat it. Additionally, it diverts blame for inaction over climate change from leaders and those who need to be held accountable. 

Photos from past bushfires and fake maps of the current fires have also been shared around social media, including by celebrities and influencers. This is incredibly dangerous for people in unsafe situations who are relying on accurate information to keep them updated. 

If that wasn’t enough, social media has also been harnessed by scammers, with the bushfire crisis exploited to get people to open their wallets to strangers. As warned by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, numerous appeals raising funds for people and animals affected by the fires are scams. 

During this devastating bushfire crisis, we have seen both the best and worst of social media.  It is more important than ever to question where information is coming from, who’s sharing posts and why. We can use our phones and screens to help those in need, but we just need to be careful about how we do it.

Marnie Vinall is a publicist and copywriter for 3 Phase Marketing 

If you’d like to assist with bushfire recovery, relief and rescue efforts, please explore the options below: 


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