Researchers say they’ve discovered 85 social media accounts and blogs originating from China and working in tandem to amplify a conspiracy theory claiming the deadly fires in Maui were caused by a secretive “weather weapon” unleashed by the US military. NewsGuard, which has previously uncovered other online influence operations from China and Russia, claims the new “coordinated online campaign” represents the most expansive Chinese operation it has uncovered to date.
The conspiracy-laden content was written in 15 different languages and appeared on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and around a dozen other platforms. Though the exact phrasing of the posts varied, they largely stemmed from a scandalous, baseless conspiracy theory involving the US military, British spies, and experimental sci-fi weaponry. Buckle up for some tinfoil hat activity.
What is the conspiracy theory about?
Several of the posts shared by NewsGuard show users describing a new bombshell report from British Intelligence Service MI6. The report, which isn’t real, supposedly cites a “defected US military scientist” with a guilty conscience approached the spy agency and exposed the military’s secretive new “weather weapon” that used “scientific and technological means to manipulate the power of nature.”
This mythical super weapon supposedly lets the military harness floods, volcanic eruptions, extreme storms, and, yes, fires against its foes. Online accounts trumpeting the conspiracy theory claim the US intends to use its weapon of mass weather destruction against Russia and “anti-American” countries in the Middle East. So where does Maui come into play? Well, the posters go on to claim the Maui fire “did not happen naturally” and was instead a byproduct of the US military flagrantly experimenting with its new wonder weapon. One of the posts shared on the blogging site Medium claimed the US military not only unleashed the weapon on Hawaii but is boldly even attempting to repossess the damaged lands for nefarious government ends.
“The news shocked and frightened governments and people around the world,” the accounts alleged. “Everyone is worried whether the US government will use ‘weather weapons’ again to attack other countries.”
“This Hawaiian wildfire is just a ‘weather weapon’ attack experiment conducted by the US military!” another post reads.
MI6 and the State Department did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s requests for comment.
Who was behind the online campaign?
To be clear, there’s no evidence the US military is working on, or could even theoretically produce, a weapon capable of summoning fires and floods on command. Though the precise starting point of the deadly fires remains unclear, a local electrical company recently said it was partly at fault for failing to shut down power in August when the state experienced extremely dry conditions and heavy winds.
NewsGuard says it traced the conspiracy theory back to a post on the Chinese platform called 163.com in early August. From there, the accounts reportedly jumped platforms and made their way to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and around 10 other sites by mid-August. By September, the posts appeared on over a dozen platforms with posts attempting to target users from a wide variety of countries. Some of the shady accounts interacted with each other to boost their content and used the hashtag #meteorologicalweapon to amplify the falsehoods. Many of the posts appeared to have replies and likes generated by bot accounts trying to make it appear as if humans were organically interacting with them.
In an email to Gizmodo, Meta confirmed the accounts shared by NewsGuard were part of a disinformation operation called Spamouflage that originated in China. That campaign, which dates back to 2019, was linked to another trove of inauthentic Facebook accounts and pages detected recently highlighted by Meta researchers. Meta said the accounts mentioned in the NewsGuard report were unsuccessful in their attempts to reach real audiences on Facebook.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson from YouTube highlighted the company’s efforts at promoting reputable news sources during emergency scenarios.
“During major news events, such as the horrific fires in Hawaii, our systems are designed to raise up content from authoritative sources in search results and recommendations,” YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez said. “We use Top News shelves, Fact Check panels, and Developing News panels to make sure viewers have as much context and information as possible from a range of authoritative sources.
NewsGuard says it couldn’t confirm if the coordinated accounts were taking orders from the Chinese government, but they said there is good reason to believe they originated with Chinese-speaking users. For starters, the researchers say the first posts in Chinese were shared at least two days before the first posts in other languages. Many of the accounts, NewsGuard notes, only appeared to publish content that aligned with the Chinese government’s interest. Some of the posts in other languages also had odd phrasings that NewsGuard interprets as telltale signs they may have been translated from Chinese. The accounts also had similar names and profile photos of inauthentic accounts.
Still, despite its wide scope, the campaign doesn’t seem to have been particularly effective. The campaign, aside from several sites where metrics are more difficult to measure, The accounts only managed to garner 564 total interactions across several social networks, a measly sum.