Hawaii fire: X becomes a breeding ground for conspiracy theories

Hawaii fire: X becomes a breeding ground for conspiracy theories

By: ilma hasan&
August 25 2023

Share Article: facebook logo twitter logo linkedin logo
Hawaii fire: X becomes a breeding ground for conspiracy theories

(Source: REUTERS/Mike Blake)

Over two weeks after the devastating wildfires on the west coast of Hawaii’s Maui island have left authorities grappling with the aftermath, X’s (formerly Twitter) pay-to-get-verified model (X Premium) is enabling right-wing accounts to fuel misinformation and conspiracy theories.

A range of theories – claims of a cabal of “global elites” intentionally setting the fire to climate change deniers alleging high-laser beams were used – have been circulating since the fires were first reported. Since blue tick accounts appear higher on the feed and search results, such narratives shared by these handles have garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

Considered the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history in over a century, which has destroyed the town of Lahaina in Maui, the wildfire has reportedly claimed the lives of over 115 people, and more than a 1,000 are said to be missing. From an initial number of 2,500 missing, at least 1,400 have been located so far. The Associated Press reported strong winds passing through the region impacted power poles that according to common practice would be turned off, but resulted in a downed powerline setting some grass alight.

These developments have paved the way for online users to allege a larger conspiracy. 

Narratives rooted in Adrenochrome conspiracies 

Some public schools on August 8, the day the fires started, were closed due to high winds while others hadn’t started yet. An estimated 3,000 students were home in the town during the incident prompting narratives claiming children were intentionally targeted. Verified handles and those with significant followers asserted a “sinister plot” or lackadaisical approach to saving children stuck at home.

Screenshots of handles propagating theories on the missing children (Source: Twitter)

On August 20, local residents had reportedly confronted Maui Mayor Richard Bissen during a media interaction asking whether any children had been found and how many were missing, to which the mayor replied, "I don't know." Handles widely used the clip to allege children were "being stolen."

A user shared a TikTok video of a woman reacting to Bissen's quote where she claims, "You know how I did a video on whether anyone knew what happened to the children and that there was a theory that they were kidnapped and trafficked before the fires hit. Anyway, I saw this clip and it looks like it's not a theory. Just like with other disasters, the fire was used not just as a land grab, but to grab children, same thing that the Red Cross, the U.N., FEMA do - they've been doing it for a while."

The post has nearly 2,28,000 views, close to 1,700 reposts and 2,600 likes. The reason the video gained significant traction is may be because the user has over 1,37,000 followers on X. 


Another verified user (@LizCrokin), whose bio says “Pizzagate is real,” shared the video with the text, “Maui Mayor Richard Bissen says he doesn’t know how many children are missing. Meanwhile, Biden’s Health & Human Services has lost over 85,000 migrant kids. There’s something very sinister going on in this country — people need to wake up real fast!” The user has nearly 2,06,000 followers, and the post got over 2,15,000 views. 

Pizzagate is a conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. that alleged the Democratic party was operating a child trafficking ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington. 

Screenshot of the tweet shared by the user. (Source: Twitter/@LizCrokin)

Similarly, a verified handle (@matttttt187) wrote, “Question is did they truly perish and bodies will be recovered or did they go “missing”….and you know exactly what I mean What Happened to Them? This entire catastrophe wreaks of Crimes Against Humanity What Happened to the Children? (sic)” With nearly 58,000 followers, the post received over 711,000 views. 

(Source: Twitter/@mattttt187)

Hundreds of handles shared similar false narratives claiming a larger conspiracy as children may constitute many of the missing people. The origins of these claims stem from antisemitic roots of the Adrenochrome conspiracy theory – children are being trafficked by the "global elites" – furthered by QAnon. These theories have routinely made rounds amid major events. 

Why misinformation goes viral

 A reason such theories have been gaining virality, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is partially due to data void, Wired reported. The report stated how conspiracy communities encourage searching for obscure phases designed to lead to results propagating such narratives, eventually forming the foundations for a hidden virality that spreads across platforms. Tech giants have over the years imposed crackdowns on such theories, but Twitter's new verification policy is being counterproductive. 

X's switch last year from granting blue ticks to public figures, public agencies, journalists, and commentators to providing verification as a subscription service has since enabled the spread of misinformation and disinformation at a large scale. Foreign Policy reported on how the new system amplifies these messages and exploits what many users still perceive as a verification system to create an illusion of credibility.

"Because there have been so many policy changes on X, lots of users aren't keeping track, the knowledge that anyone can get a blue check isn't percolating, which means that they can tend to think a blue tick means a notable account in one way or another," according to Internet Freedom Foundation's Policy Director Prateek Waghre. "This combined with emerging situations like the wildfires where people are looking for info to fill knowledge gaps can create issues. Earlier blue ticks usually meant more credible, but that is no longer the case."

Waghre says with these policy changes it is impossible to get data on the extent of the impact such decisions cause. "With engagement being an implicit reward, users will engage in content bound to generate a reaction – and often that's not a good thing," he told Logically Facts. In addition, downsizing trust and safety teams and monetizing the verification process makes it unclear to experts how committed tech giants are to combating misinformation and disinformation. "These are challenging problems. Technology is easy to run, it's the politics that's the complex part of it," Waghre said. 

With a barrage of content ranging from commentators to handles appearing to present falsehoods as news – combined with reducing the reach of legitimate accounts that aren't verified – X is becoming a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and narratives during tragedies such as the catastrophic fires in Maui's historic Lahaina. 

Logically Facts contacted X for a response; this story will be updated if and when we receive a response. 

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before