Saturday, 24 August 2019

Odd shots, 01: Fires in Brazilian rainforest

This is a new series about the strange ways that people online go about blaming the media for society’s ills. I don’t know how long this series will go for, but the trope is so common it’s actually unremarkable. The series title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

23 August

The day before I had seen a tweet from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) journalist that said something along the lines of, “People have read in the media about the Amazon fires and then are complaining that the mainstream media isn’t covering it.” This journalist had actually covered the fires herself for the public broadcaster and on that Wednesday she expressed puzzlement due to people’s comments about her profession.

Then on Friday I saw a tweet from a journalist who lives in Portugal named Rita Vaz da Silva (no relation). It was part of a thread and I will put the whole thing here so that you can keep up with the meaning of this episode of ‘Odd shots’.
Misinformation on what is happening in the Amazon/Amazonia is insane. On social media is total chaos, no respect whatsoever to the facts. The worst of it all is watching the mainstream media disseminate stuff they see on social media without verifying any of the info, sources. 
One of the reasons this misinformation is spreading is actually reassuring. This is one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the world. For reference, it takes at least 15 hours to go from Santarém to Manaus by boat. It's impossible to drive to most places. 
The fire count is slightly above average in some states - Amazonas and Rondônia. But the virgin rainforest isn't burning like most people think it is. It's mostly slash and burn agriculture and fires near populated areas. This is nothing new and has been happening for decades.
The final tweet in the series was published at 6.48am on this day, Sydney time. A bit later, a woman who routinely lambastes the media and who has over 15,000 followers, named Denise Shrivell, retweeted a tweet from an Australian author named Jess Hill that said, “I know the media has close to zero interest in South America, but given the catastrophic fires burning right now in the Amazon may accelerate the climate crisis, maybe it’s time to start paying attention?” Denise added for her followers the comment, “Anyone seen any mention of #AmazonRainforest in Australian media?” I replied “ABC has covered it.” Denise didn’t respond to my tweet and when I retweeted the thread from Rita da Silva with a tag so that Denise would see it, she also didn’t respond.

Her silence was not surprising considering the extent of the information blitz the day before. Here are just a few examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about. One person who tweeted was French President Emanuel Macron, saying, “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest - the lungs which produces [sic] 20% of our planet’s oxygen - is [sic] on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let's discuss this emergency first order in two days!” With its charmingly original English his tweet had been retweeted 13,000 times and had received 36,000 likes when I checked the stats. It came with a photo showing jungle burning, but it wasn’t clear when or where the photo had been taken. If you saw the tweet and looked at it uncritically, you would think it was a recent photo of the Brazilian rainforest, but this was not stated.

Another tweet came from a journalist I follow named Miriam Cosic, who included in her tweet an image containing the following text:
The lungs of the Earth are in flames. The Brazilian Amazon – home to 1 million Indigenous people and 3 million species – has been burning for more than two weeks straight. There have been 74,000 fires in the Brazilian Amazon since the beginning of this year – a staggering 84% increase over the same period last year (National Institute for Space Research, Brazil). Scientists and conservationists attribute the accelerating deforestation to President Jair Bolsonaro, who issued an open invitation to loggers and farmers to clear the land after taking office in January.
The text was from, allegedly, an outfit with a handle “ourplanetdaily”, but it was hard to know for sure who had put the information into the public sphere and whether the facts that it retailed in were actually true or not. I found a Twitter account named @OurPlanetDaily but it hadn’t put up anything since 7 November 2017.

Another tweet from an Irish campaigner named John Gibbons contained an image that was a map of Brazil showing fires in red on a green background. His tweet read, “So many #Climate emergencies worldwide, it's hard to keep up. But #AmazonRainforest burning is stand-out global disaster. Every red dot below represents a significant fire.” The locations of the fires were not, as expected, in the areas where the heaviest forest exists, in the northwestern part of the country, but closer to the south. As with the other information that had been put out on Wednesday 22 August by so many people, there was no indication where this image had been made or who had made it.

There was a tweet from a US outfit called the Sunrise Movement that contained a video showing what appeared to be an Indigenous woman (with elaborate headdress) standing in dark countryside and pointing to burning vegetation behind her. It was impossible to know when and where the video had been taken and it was even unclear what kind of vegetation the fire was consuming.

Later, I saw a photo in a Vox story published online on Thursday that featured fires burning in different countries. There was one photo that purported to show a fire in Brazil, in the Amazon basin. The photo was put up by a person with the handle @mohsinkazmitakepictures on Instagram and shows some vegetation burning in the foreground, part of what appears to be a field used for agriculture (which corroborates what da Silva had said). In the background is the forest margin. On the guy’s website the same photo is found but there is no caption to say when and where it was taken. There are other photos that might have been taken in Brazil but nothing that could be described as rainforest burning. You can go to his Instagram page to find the text that he published with the photo described.

Then, on 23 August at 9.46am, da Silva put up a new tweet containing the same image that Macron had used in his tweet. She said in relation to this photo, “I tracked down the granddaughter of Loren McIntyre, the photographer who took this photo everyone is sharing. An old image, pre-2003, of a fire in Pará. I'm dying to DM her to know what she thinks of all of this.”

I checked the ABC News website but could find no story about the Brazilian rainforest fires there, nor on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. But I did a Google search and found an ABC story by a journalist named Claire Knox (who might have been the person mentioned in the first paragraph, above) that had gone up on the web on Wednesday with the headline, “Record wildfires raging through the Amazon can now be seen from space.”

The story had a photo in it showing burning forest but there was no textual gloss accompanying the photo and it might have been a stock image. The story quoted the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) of Brazil, the same source that Cosic’s tweet had used. There was also a photo that looked as though it had been taken from space that was captioned, “Satellite data captured on August 13 shows fires in the Amazon creating a dome of smoke over South America.” The photo was taken from space and appeared to show smoke from what could have been fires in the central western part of the country, an area which could have been in either of the states of Rondonia or Mato Grosso. The caption also said that the photo had been supplied by a person named Santiago Gasso, but who he is or where he works was not disclosed. The photo itself might have provided substance to the claim that rainforest was burning but it wasn’t at all clear if you just looked at it without any accompanying narrative. The story also said:
Since last Thursday, [the INPE] said satellite images spotted 9,507 new forest fires in the country, mostly in the Amazon basin, home to the world's largest tropical forest — a habitat seen as vital to countering global warming.
Now, if you accept the truth of the photos in this story (two of which were probably from the archives) and the message in the headline and the information from this (to me) previously-unknown “space agency” then you might think that rainforest was burning in Brazil.

A Guardian story dated that Friday with an image containing information sourced from NASA showing fires in the country appeared to add substance to the claim, but the image (which the Guardian made) showed most of the fires were not (repeat: not) in the Amazon basin.

Corroborating what had appeared in the satellite image put on the ABC’s page, there were dots on the Guardian’s image showing fires had been burning in the central west of the country, but (also corroborating what was shown in the ABC’s satellite photo) more appeared to have been lit in Paraguay and in Bolivia. There were also dots on the Guardian image showing fires burning in the east of the country, an area in which, going by the ABC’s satellite image, no smoke was present. The text on the web page didn’t actually add anything to corroborate the information, already mentioned, that had been sourced from the NISR. 

Then I saw a story that was linked to in a Guardian opinion piece by a Brazilian journalist named Elaine Brum. The story in question was on the website of an organisation called Science Alert and was originally published on the website of Business Insider. It is by a journalist named Aylin Woodward and it contains an image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US government agency, that shows some smoke from fires in the central west of Brazil. Part of the image includes the Amazon basin but Bolivia is in the centre of the photo, which was taken by a satellite. There are some plumes of what looks like smoke that have their sources in different areas of Brazil but in its first paragraph the story says: “Since August 15, more than 9,500 new forest fires have started across Brazil, primarily in the Amazon basin.” As in the image in the ABC story the smoke is heading southwest. The photo is dated 12 August.

A bit later I saw a story published yesterday from Business Insider titled, ‘Brazil's climate change sceptic government says warnings about the fires consuming the Amazon are 'sensationalist,' 'hysterical,' and 'misleading'.’ It contains the following to back up its claims of widespread rainforest fires:
The government is painting itself as the subject of an international smear campaign as activists and political leaders around the world urge action and decry state policies that have allowed increased clearing of the forest for farming and logging, which has likely been the source of many of the fires.
“Likely” but they’re not sure. The lack of evidence doesn’t stop the outlet adding its two cents’-worth to the campaign though. But let’s pause and consider for a moment what da Silva is not saying. She’s not saying that there is no burning of rainforest going on in the Amazon basin. What she is objecting to are the unsubstantiated, uncorroborated claims of widespread rainforest destruction using fire by the international media and by others, including politicians like Macron. It’s no surprise that a politician would lie for effect or to achieve some secondary goal unrelated to the issue in the case. But it is a bit more unsettling when the media feels a duty to follow people like Macron, blindly and without asking questions. 

Many of the images that I saw in a Guardian video on another of its web pages might easily have been vision of wildfires rather than fires that had been intentionally lit in order to clear land for agriculture. The following chart from NASA shows, for example, that wildfires are common at this time of year in the state of Amazonas. The trend for 2019 shown here is not significantly different from the lines for any other recent year. Unsurprisingly, this information was published from da Silva’s Twitter account.

Given the left’s hatred of the Brazilian president in Brazil and elsewhere, this kind of story was catnip for progressives. But if you have a more critical mind you might think, especially taking into account what da Silva had said, that the whole thing was just a massive beat-up. I am open to persuasion if evidence of large-scale burning of rainforests in the Amazon basin can be produced but so far there is nothing like this available anywhere. 

The thing about this case is that rather than not covering what appeared at first blush to be a major international story, it turns out that the media had uncritically repeated allegations without bothering to find anything substantial to back up its claims. So the media was to blame in the case of the Brazilian forest fires, but not for the reasons given by Shrivell and others.

[UPDATE 10.44am, 27 August 2019]: So today the Guardian actually does some real journalism and gets a guy on the ground in Rio de Janeiro to do some phoning. He finds some bureaucrats in the environment department to say (on deep background; they won't give their names) that their organisation had evidence of some fires deliberately lit to clear forest in order to make land suitable for grazing or for cropping (it's not stated which) in the state of Para. The fires started burning on 10 August, which coincides with a photo taken from a satellite showing some smoke over the west of the country on 12 August (see below). The point of origin of this smoke could easily be in Para. The image was copied from the ABC story mentioned in the above blogpost.

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