Just because something gets posted to Facebook doesn’t mean it’s true. You’d think that people would realize this by now — it is 2019, after all — but yet another exaggerated narrative has been making the rounds on social media lately.
You’ve almost certainly seen posts about the wildfires in the Amazon rainforest being shared by friends and acquaintances. Some of the dramatic imagery is heart-wrenching, with animals fleeing flames and smoke billowing across the sky.
But as you might have suspected, reality is a bit different than what is circulating on social media. What’s really spreading like wildfire is disinformation. Yes, there are some fires in the region, but the facts don’t match the wild claims about the Amazon or “the world’s lungs” disappearing.
It turns out that most of the fires in the Amazon area aren’t burning down the untouched rainforest, but are actually smoldering on farmland that has already been cleared of trees.
“Scientists studying satellite image data from the fires in the Amazon rain forest said that most of the fires are burning on agricultural land where the forest had already been cleared,” The New York Times reported on Saturday.
“Most of the fires were likely set by farmers preparing the land for next year’s planting, a common agricultural practice, said the scientists from the University of Maryland,” the newspaper continued.
In other words, claims that the huge Brazilian Amazon is burning down just aren’t true. A map created by The Times, based on data from NASA and Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, shows that almost all of the fire locations are on land that was deforested last year.
Satellite images of the current fires confirm The Times’ reporting. In most cases, it isn’t pristine jungle that is burning; it’s long-cleared agricultural land that farmers have purposely set ablaze to prepare for crops.
“Brazil has turned certain states like Mato Grosso into Iowa,” explained University of Maryland researcher Matthew Hansen. “You’ve got rain forest, and then there’s just an ocean of soybean.”
Browsing on social media, you may have gotten the impression that this month’s fires are shocking and unprecedented. But that, too, appears to be a blatant exaggeration of the facts.
August, September and October have always been peak fire times in the Amazon region, according to fire data going back to 2001. A graph of the current fire trends compiled by The Times shows that the region is on track for a roughly average number of fires, compared to the last decade and a half of data.
“As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years,” an Aug. 22 NASA report explained.
Translation: The fires aren’t unprecedented, they’re taking place in areas that have long been cleared of trees and they aren’t even close to burning down the Amazon rainforest.
The misinformation and hand-wringing has been made worse by pictures being shared by celebrities and other social media users who don’t bother to fact-check what they post.
“Emmanuel Macron, president of France, posted a picture that is at least seven years old. Soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo’s photo was originally posted in 2013, and reposted throughout the years,” The Western Journal explained Sunday.
There’s nothing wrong with being concerned about the environment. And it’s only human to feel sympathetic when dramatic photos of fires and terrified animals are posted online.
But facts must triumph over hysteria. Some healthy skepticism over what is being shared will go a long way toward reeling back fear and discerning reality clearly.