Dozens of pro-China social media and blog accounts are spreading the false claim that an experimental U.S. military weapon caused the August 2023 Maui wildfires — in what appears to be part of a coordinated online campaign to portray the U.S. military in a negative light, NewsGuard has found.
In August and September 2023, NewsGuard identified 85 social media and blog accounts spreading nearly identical posts and videos claiming that British intelligence service MI6 had revealed that the U.S. caused the Hawaiian wildfires, which left at least 115 people dead. This content was found on 14 major platforms, including Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, and blog posting site Medium.
“This Hawaiian wildfire is just a ‘weather weapon’ attack experiment conducted by the US military!” declared many of the accounts in the campaign.
The influence operation appears to have been launched by Chinese speakers. NewsGuard was unable to determine whether the Chinese government was directly involved. However, this is not the first pro-China influence operation NewsGuard has identified. In April, NewsGuard detected a disinformation campaign on X disparaging two Chinese dissidents, and in November 2022, NewsGuard discovered a campaign, also on X, targeting an NGO that published a critical investigation of Beijing’s overseas influence.
This newly-discovered network appeared to be aimed at users in multiple countries, posting in 15 languages in addition to Chinese — English, Korean, Russian, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Indonesian, Dutch, Icelandic, Filipino, Maltese, Belarusian, Malagasy, and Marathi, one of India’s official languages.
Posing as ordinary social media users, some of these accounts reposted and interacted with one another, artificially inflating the network’s reach. Many accounts also used hashtags such as #meteorologicalweapon to attract attention. (Some of the platforms used by this campaign, such as Facebook and X, have policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior.)
Asked about NewsGuard’s findings, Meta said in a September 2023 email that some Facebook accounts shared by NewsGuard are part of a spam operation originating from China that Meta has been monitoring since 2019. Similarly, a Reddit spokesperson said that the Reddit accounts showed patterns of behavior associated with the same spam operation.
Medium told NewsGuard that the Medium accounts violated the platform’s policy against misinformation and inauthentic activity.
NewsGuard also contacted the other major platforms targeted by the influence operation — X, YouTube, Quora, Vimeo, Tumblr, Pinterest, Tripadvisor, Blogger, Rumble, story platform Wattpad, and humor site 9Gag — seeking comment on the accounts involved in the disinformation campaign and asking if they had ties to China. None of these other platforms responded to NewsGuard’s questions on-the-record. But Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Medium, and Reddit seem to have taken down accounts in the campaign that were flagged by NewsGuard.