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Image: Livestream
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SocietyMarch 3, 2022

When misinformation spreads like fire

Image: Livestream
Image: Livestream

How one Facebook livestream comment about the parliament lawn fires led to a brand new truth for protest supporters.

Viewers watching the Facebook livestream from protest influencer Chantelle Baker yesterday afternoon (March 2) got to witness misinformation unfolding in real time as a fire within the protest camp changed – according to Baker, and in the space of 10 minutes – from a fire started by “six guys” to a fire started by the police.

At around 3.40pm Baker, streaming live on Facebook from the protest, was alerted to thick black smoke rising from among the tents on parliament’s lawn. “Shit, they’re burning stuff,” she exclaimed. “What kind of idiots would start a fire around all these tents?!”

A burning tent seen on one of many livestreams from parliament

About a minute later Baker wondered aloud, of people she’d seen running around near the fire: “Were those people instigators, because they were covered in masks?”

Among the comments on her stream many were concluding, with no evidence, that the police were behind it, and any instigators were probably working for them. “[There] were plenty of instigators within the protest, the police probably knew this fire was happening,” opined Amanda in one comment.

“Police obviously sent some of their own in to cause trouble the wankers,” suggested Tony. 

Two minutes after the fire began, Baker saw people among the protest throwing more flammable items onto the fire. “These idiots in the corner,” Baker narrated as we saw items flying from the crowd into the growing inferno. “There’s some big angry people in this corner and they’ve started that, and they keep chucking stuff onto it!”

By this point it seemed clear that Baker had drawn the obvious conclusion from what was playing out in front of her – people within the protest crowd had started a fire and were stoking it.

At 3.45pm a new commenter, Ben, posted new and specific information about the start of the fire: “Cops pushed over generator over ignited nylon tent”.

A Facebook comment from Chantelle Baker’s livestream

The comment scrolled by without Baker noticing. “I think we need to go and film the guys that are doing this,” she said.

Only 38 seconds later, a new specific claim arrived in the chat from another commenter, Dan. “Police knocked over a gas cooker caught live on conserve media,” he wrote, referencing another Facebook livestream (I checked the stream in question, it caught no such thing). 

This one had escaped Baker’s notice too, and a moment later she summarised the situation: “There was a group of six guys, they started a fire, and now everything’s going up, oh my god.”

Barely three minutes after it was first posted, Baker saw Ben’s comment and read it out loud to her more than 18,000 viewers. “Cops started it, they pushed over a generator it caught a tent on fire,” she announced. “Wow.”

A minute later, talking to a friend at the protest, Baker repeated the claim. From this point on, the reality, as far as Baker was concerned, is that police started the fire.

The initial fire as seen from parliament’s balcony with police lines well removed from the starting point (Image: Justin Giovannetti)

Some in the comments weren’t so sure. Jordan wrote, “a generator isn’t gonna set something on fire by being pushed over, and the police line wasn’t past the tent that caught fire”. Both seemingly accurate points, but they did nothing to shift the new truth.

A couple of minutes later Baker came across a TV news crew among the tents and shouted out, “mainstream media, you started this! It was your propaganda that caused this!”

She repeated her new truth. “You realise the police pushed over a generator that set a tent on fire?” she shouted at the camera crew. “I hope you guys get that. I hope you don’t say it was the protesters when it was the police that caused this fire!”

There were close to 20,000 people watching Baker’s livestream at that moment. Baker, her viewers and, soon, the participants in countless Telegram and Facebook groups, were convinced: the police had started the fire. All from one comment on a Facebook livestream.

A collage of Telegram posts about the fire’s origin

Other footage of the protest from the time doesn’t support Baker’s version of events. Wider angles, such as those from media outlets watching from parliament’s balcony, show the police line well away from the spot where and when the fire started.

Closer views of the initial fire confirm this, showing police lines holding about 10 metres away from the tent where the fire begins. While it’s not clear in videos which individuals started the first fire, it is clear that they were from among the protesters themselves.

Baker was given ample opportunity to challenge her assumptions when, moments later, she came across a freshly lit fire among tents elsewhere in the camp. There were no cops or tipped generators in sight.

She was filming as a protester picked up a burning cardboard box from the fire and hurled it into another nearby tent. “This is what you get for not listening to the people!” said the arsonist as he gleefully spread the inferno. Chants from others nearby seemed supportive: “burn it all down!”

Frames from Chantelle Baker’s livestream as a protester throws a flaming box into a tent

Despite what Baker had just witnessed, her faith in the “police started it” narrative appeared unshaken. “Yes, we can confirm the police started the fire, they’ve got it all on record,” Baker said a while later in reply to a query in her comments. She would “confirm” this “fact” many more times during her livestream.  

This one huge piece of misinformation, based on a single comment from a Facebook user apparently unknown to Baker, became an established “fact” to protest supporters and spread like wildfire among commenters, posters, livestreamers and even in person at the protest.

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