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How does wildfire misinformation affect communities in N.W.T. and B.C.?

Click to play video: 'N.W.T. wildfires: Misinformation a concern in remote northern region'
N.W.T. wildfires: Misinformation a concern in remote northern region
WATCH: In the Northwest Territories, more than 200 fires are burning. The remoteness of the northern region means it's not only hard to get people out, but information as well. Jeff Semple explains – Aug 20, 2023

Wildfire misinformation on social media platforms has created confusion and panic for evacuees and tourists in the Northwest Territories and B.C., some say.

Adam Archibald is a Yellowknife resident who was evacuated last week due to wildfires threatening the city. He said he was at a mine in a remote community when he got the evacuation order, and that’s when he noticed the misinformation online.

According to Archibald, someone posted a map in a local Facebook group saying the fires were 10 kilometeres away from the city. He then went onto NASA’s wildfire tracker, which said the fires were actually 22 kilometres away from the city at the time.

“It definitely caused a bit of panic,” he told Global News. “Most of the city was getting their news off (this Facebook group) and just spreading gossip, misinformation and chaos.

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“I was hearing lots of rumours. People were saying that it could be within the city in a couple of days … It was pretty chaotic and we weren’t getting informed properly.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfires: Frustrations over the Bush Creek fire battle'
B.C. wildfires: Frustrations over the Bush Creek fire battle

Archibald said he posted in the Facebook group to try and correct the misinformation. However, Meta’s news ban for Canadian users meant he couldn’t share links to credible news organizations such as Cabin Radio.

“It was a mix of emotions. There’s definitely some anger in there where I couldn’t tell people what was going on and they were questioning what you were saying,” he said.

“I’m not a reputable news feed or an expert by any means, but I’m going after information that’s provided and covered on the radio to keep everyone informed.

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In the midst of Canada’s worst wildfire season, Cabin Radio’s website and articles have become a lifeline for residents of Yellowknife. The site is a small digital news broadcaster in the region.

Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, blocked all news content on its Canadian platforms earlier this month, after Ottawa tried to force the tech giant to pay publishers.

“It’s a stupid and dangerous ban. There’s no two ways of getting around that,” said Ollie Williams, journalist and editor of Cabin Radio.

“(Facebook) could lift the ban right now in the interests of preservation of life.”

As the fires inched closer to their northern capital last week, Williams and his colleagues decided to evacuate. He hastily set-up a Starlink satellite dish on his truck’s flatbed, wedging it down with bags of dog food, so he could continue publishing articles for Cabin Radio’s website during the remote 600-kilometre drive out of the region.

“We were still pushing those updates because you can’t lose that source of information at that moment because that’s when it’s most needed,” Williams told Global News during an interview at Cabin Radio’s temporary office inside a former RCMP barracks in Port Simpson, NWT.

In a statement to Global News, a Meta spokesperson said Canadians “can continue to use our technologies to connect with their communities and access reputable information, including content from official government agencies, emergency services and non-governmental organizations.”

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Williams at Cabin Radio acknowledged that local governments and emergency services have their own Facebook pages where they share updates and information, “but it’s all in different little corners of Facebook and you have to know where to go to find it,” he said.

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“So the role of Cabin Radio is to collate all of that and put it in one responsible place where people can go and check.”

Click to play video: 'NWT wildfires: The complexity and challenges of Yellowknife’s evacuation'
NWT wildfires: The complexity and challenges of Yellowknife’s evacuation

Misinformation isn’t just confusing evacuees in Yellowknife.

Sarah Gail is an Edmonton resident who traveled to Kelowna before the wildfire situation intensified in the Central Interior. When communities in Kelowna were put on evacuation alerts and orders, she didn’t know what to do because of conflicting messaging from residents.

Gail said she was told by someone that Highway 97 North was closed to tourist traffic on Friday. She said she was also told B.C. RCMP officers were checking vehicles to see if they were travelling for essential purposes. This led her to stay in the city, but she said she could have left earlier.

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She is now traveling back to Edmonton on Highway 97 South, which is more than a 10-hour drive.

“We searched for information but all the information we found was 10 hours old … We couldn’t find anything within a timeframe for us to know what’s going on,” Gail told Global News. “Ten hours is a long time to not have any up-to-date information.”

Government officials are now urging everyone to share accurate and factual information on social media from trusted sources, such as government websites and social media pages.

Williams said their readers were finding workarounds, including taking screenshots of Cabin Radio’s articles and posting those on Facebook, circumventing the ban that prevents users from publishing news links.

He said they’ve also seen a significant increase in readers going directly to their website, a sharp contrast from several years ago when most of their web traffic came via Facebook.

Click to play video: 'Canadian media ask Competition Bureau to investigate Meta’s news ban'
Canadian media ask Competition Bureau to investigate Meta’s news ban

While much of their criticism is directed at Meta, Williams and other evacuees also blame the federal government for creating this situation through the introduction of Bill C-18.

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“The Prime Minister is trying to help out our media by giving them all that extra money, when they’re losing money to the social media giants,” Archibald said.

“But those corporations are there to protect their profits and (the Prime Minister) is there to protect the people. And he didn’t. He left them misinformed and left them out to dry in this instance.”

In a statement to Global News the Office of the Minister of Canadian Heritage Pascale St-Onge deflected the blame towards the tech giant.

“Despite the emergency situation, Facebook has made a choice to be irresponsible, reckless, and continues to block news on their platform across Canada,” the statement said.

“There is no reason good enough for Facebook to put people in danger.”

Click to play video: 'NWT wildfires: Yellowknife residents seek shelter in Alberta'
NWT wildfires: Yellowknife residents seek shelter in Alberta

Last Wednesday, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty urged residents to only share reliable and accurate information. The Government of Northwest Territories website will be updated with evacuation information, she said.

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“This is an incredibly difficult time for everyone. Please look out for each other when you can,” Alty said at Wednesday’s news conference.

She also cited another rumour falsely claimed there had been widespread looting in Yellowknife following the evacuation order, prompting some residents to try and return to their homes.

“I’m hearing the wildest rumours. And it’s like, no, no, that’s not the case. Please only go to reliable sources,” she said.

“And that’s definitely the thing I hear from residents: frustration that they can’t share sources of information, good news stories that kind of capture everything.”

What is being done to help?

Mike Westwick, a fire information officer with the Government of the Northwest Territories, said crews are taking advantage of the fact that most communities in the territory are small.

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Fire information officers are getting involved with their local communities and are active on social media replying to comments online.

Westwick said a lot of misinformation is being amplified because people are scared and stressed about the wildfires. According to Westwick, 65 per cent of territorial residents have been or have experienced an evacuation.

Radio has become an important tool to relay accurate information this wildfire season, especially for remote communities where internet connection may be limited, he said.

“It’s about being available and acknowledging the anxiety people are facing … The mental stress can’t be overstated,” he told Global News.

Sarah Budd, communications and engagement lead for B.C. Wildfire, urged tourists and residents to seek accurate and truthful information before amplifying posts online.

“There is a wealth of information being put out directly from the B.C. Wildfire Service and our partners, like Drive B.C. They are a great source and will have the most up-to-date information,” she told Global News.

“If you’re seeing something and you don’t know if it’s true, go to that trusted source and check there before you share.”

Click to play video: 'N.W.T. and B.C. brace for more wildfires as crisis escalates across Canada'
N.W.T. and B.C. brace for more wildfires as crisis escalates across Canada

Budd also urged people to not spread disinformation about wildfires. Disinformation is false information that is deliberately intended to mislead, according to a definition by the American Psychological Association.

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A wildfire that is determined to be “human-caused” does not mean it is arson, Budd said.

“The bulk of our fires this year have been lightning-caused fires. When they’re human-caused, usually that’s an accident. That can be from a camp fire or from industrial or from ATV’s,” Budd explained.

Westwick said it’s important to list out how all the fires were started and why the fires are threatening communities. But he added it’s important to speak to community members empathetically and compassionately.

“It’s important to relate to people and speak from a human place,” he said. “You have to tell them why this is happening.”

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