Australia’s Bushfires and Misleading Maps

Whenever there’s a major news event, there will be an outbreak of fake, misattributed or misleading images that purport to be about that event. That goes for maps as well.

Take the serious situation with Australia’s bushfires at the moment. Social media is jammed with maps showing practically the whole damn continent on fire, or superimposed on another continent to let people there know just how big Australia is (and also on fire). It’s a profoundly serious situation, and as NASA’s Joshua Stevens points out, it’s possible to present an accurate map that shows its seriousness without resorting to hyperbole.

The trouble is, social media thrives on hyperbole, because it thrives on “engagement”—which means outrage and anger and, as Joshua Emmons notes, as we get inured to a certain level of outrage, even more outrage is needed just to get noticed.

Which brings me to this thing, which is showing up all over the social web:

Anthony Hearsey, Creative Imaging.

This is not a satellite image. It’s a visualization by Anthony Hearsey that shows the areas in Australia affected by bushfires from 5 Dec 2019 to 5 Jan 2020. It superimposes FIRMS data on an exaggerated relief 3D model of Australia. It’s also cumulative: it includes fires that have been put out. Because of that, the image looks far worse than an actual satellite image would. (A satellite image would also have a lot more smoke.)

But it hasn’t stopped people from sharing this image as though it were a real satellite image. It’s been attributed as an photo taken from the International Space Station more than once. The problem is such that it’s been flagged by Facebook’s factchecking system and has gotten written up at Snopes, the debunking website.

It’s all the more problematic since the visualization itself has a serious issue: Nick Evershed points out that it’s based on a very low-resolution FIRMS grid that makes the area affected by bushfires much, much larger than it actually is.

To be fair to Hearsay and his image, lots of maps and data visualizations have their issues. Only because it went so, so viral do its issues become critical. The problem is largely one of misattribution—the image being presented as something it isn’t (i.e., a satellite image)—and of map literacy: a general audience isn’t capable of assessing how the data is being presented. It’s being presented to that audience as the literal truth, and since we’re trained to expect our maps never to lie, we swallow it whole.

The Australian bushfires are a serious problem. How much worse do our maps need to make them look—how much do they have to torque the situation—just to get our attention?

I’m not sure I’m going to like the answer to that.

Update, 9 Jan: BBC News takes up the story.

Update, 10 Jan: ABC News (Australia) coverage. See also The Conversation: 6 things to ask yourself before you share a bushfire map on social media.

Previously: Studying How and Why Maps Go Viral; Bad Internet Maps: ‘A Social Media Plague’.