Mistrust on cause of Maui fire fueled by Chinese disinformation

Erika Pless, with a mask to filter out dust, looks towards a field near the alleged origin of the West Maui Wildfire, in Lahaina on the island of Maui, Hawaii, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. Authorities are continuing search and recovery efforts a week after multiple wind-driven wildfires devastated the island, with at least 106 deaths and many still missing near the historical town of Lahaina. (Stephen Lam/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Social media disinformation that is playing a major role in mistrust among some Lahaina fire survivors was stoked by China — including a claim that the fire started from secret government testing of a “weather weapon.”

China’s disinformation campaign about the cause of the deadly Lahaina fire, as reported Monday by The New York Times, follows online conspiracy theories that continue as fire survivors face an uncertain future and feel left out of decisions about what comes next in their lives, said state Sen. Angus McKelvey, whose Lahaina home was destroyed in the disaster.


McKelvey lost his three-bedroom condo on Limahana Place and with other survivors is sheltered in a Kaanapali hotel. Their “trust in government is down to an epic low,” said McKelvey (D, West Maui-Maalaea-South Maui).

The chair of the Senate government operations committee said he has yet to be consulted on any future steps for Lahaina, West Maui and fire survivors.

China took advantage of mistrust and an information vacuum to spread misinformation about the Aug. 8 wildfire that killed at least 115 people, according to the Times.

McKelvey said the conspiracy theory that the natural disaster was caused by a U.S. “weather weapon” also was spread after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and other major natural catastrophes.

But disenfranchised survivors on Maui and even in Nanakuli on Oahu are willing to listen to wild theories, unaware they were spread by China, McKelvey said.

“Let’s be real, China’s our enemy in a Cold War situation,” he said. “This is what they and Russia do. They see opportunities on social media to basically destabilize and to stir up and weaponize (political) parties leading up to the next elections.”

U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda represents rural Oahu and the neighbor islands and has organized events on Maui to connect survivors to aid and a wide range of resources.

She condemned China for the disinformation campaign while survivors, family members of victims, Hawaii and much of the world continue to grieve.

“Weaponizing loss of life and tragedy for strategic or political gain is absolutely unacceptable,” Tokuda told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an email Monday. “Reports that certain foreign governments generated disinformation and shared harmful content is disgusting. It is sickening that anyone would take advantage of our people and community as they grieve, and it is a mockery of our pain and our loss. Hawaii has shared its aloha and opened her doors to people from around the world. We deserve better, and so do the people of those countries seeking to pirate in misinformation.”

State Rep. Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley) has long worried about Chinese propaganda and influence in Hawaii — concerns that were amplified after suspected Chinese surveillance balloons were spotted in Hawaii and parts of the mainland, including one that was shot down by a U.S. warplane in February off the coast of South Carolina.

Ward called the New York Times report “probably a little more diabolical (than the balloons) by playing on the heart strings of these grieving people.”

“Should we be surprised China is at work doing its best to undermine the United States?” Ward asked. “They’re trying to undermine faith in the U.S. government and create confusion among Americans in general about how we treat our island family.”

At his monthly Beer Summit /Leadership Forum on Thursday at the Hawaii Kai Shopping Center’s Greek Marina, Ward was surprised by the pushback he received by mentioning online “conspiracy theories” in the aftermath of the Lahaina fire.

“They thought it was impolite to call them conspiracies, these ideas that the fire was caused by laser beams or microwaves,” Ward said. “They thought that these theories were deserving of respect. I thought, ‘Wow. This is my district. These are my people.’ They came back and pushed back on me. I didn’t mean to demean anyone.”

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono marked one month since the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century by standing on the Senate floor and condemning the spread of misinformation on social media, driven in part by foreign governments, which she said has discouraged some Maui residents from accessing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and stoked distrust in the federal government.

At “a time of grief and loss, residents have been subjected to disinformation on social media, likely coordinated by foreign government entities, to discourage residents from reaching out to FEMA for disaster assistance, and disinformation that sowed distrust in the federal government,” Hirono said.

Through FEMA, the U.S. Small Business Administration and “dozens” of other agencies and organizations, Hirono said, thousands of survivors were relocated into hotel rooms, Airbnbs and other short-term shelters.

“To date, more than $50 million in federal assistance to individuals has already been approved,” Hirono said. “Federal personnel have also been critical to the search and rescue efforts, coming from around the country to help search through the rubble and identify the remains of those lost.”

On Monday, Hirono elaborated on her Senate comments in an email to the Star-Advertiser.

“At a time of grief and loss, Maui residents have been subjected to disinformation on social media, likely coordinated by foreign government entities such as Russia and China, to discourage them from reaching out to FEMA for assistance and sow distrust in the federal government,” Hirono wrote. “For anyone, let alone foreign governments, to push these baseless lies and conspiracies amid a national disaster is dangerous and cruel. It’s an all hands on deck effort to combat this kind of disinformation and make sure those impacted by the fire have the support and information they need.”

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