By Judy Wieder

Were China, Russia and MAGA’s deliberate lies about Lahaina’s deadly fires just a dress rehearsal for the upcoming interference they plan to unleash on our 2024 elections?

When wildfires swept across Maui with unstoppable fury, China’s increasingly resourceful MISinformation criminals pounced.

“The disaster was not natural,” they said in a flurry of false posts that dispersed fear across the internet. “It was the result of a secret ‘weather weapon’ being tested by the United States.”

To bolster this garbage, the posts carried photographs that appeared real but were actually generated by artificial intelligence programs, making the campaign among the first to use AI tools to create an aura of authenticity around complete bullshit. Quickly the lies caused confusion and chaos amplified by social media in the midst of a massive tragedy. While people in Lahaina were burning up or jumping in the ocean and drowning, this false narrative was working to destroy what little opportunities existed for survival.

Weeks before, we ourselves were shown phony photos like these by a group of well-meaning construction workers employed in our area. They had been thoroughly manipulated by this cruel campaign. Together we researched the photos and accusations and immediately discovered—thanks to the information iMicrosoft, Recorded Future, the RAND Corporation, NewsGuard, and the University of Maryland had uncovered—this entire fabrication was just a test run for China, Russia and other highly motivated anti-Democratic nations to use in the 2024 elections. Right now MAGA Republicans are all over it.

Natural disasters have often been the focus of disinformation campaigns to exploit emotions and accuse governments of poor rescue responses, either in preparation or recovery. The goal can simply be to undermine trust in specific policies or more generally to stir up internal discord.

For China — which largely stood on the sidelines of the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections while Russia ran numerous hacking operations and disinformation campaigns — the effort to cast the wildfires as a deliberate act by American intelligence agencies and the military was a campaign focused on creating chaos as well as amplifying China’s own propaganda about its Taiwan policies.

But, of course China was not the only country to make political use of the Maui fires. Russia did as well, spreading posts that emphasized how much money the United States was spending on the war in Ukraine and suggesting the cash should be spent at home for disaster relief. That’s so nuts. Of course it is!

Caroline Amy Orr Bueno, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Lab for Intelligence and Security, reported that a coordinated Russian campaign began on Twitter, the social media platform now known as X, on Aug. 9, a day after the fires started.

X spread the phrase, “Hawaii, not Ukraine,” through a series of conservative or right-wing accounts like Breitbart and ultimately Russian state media, reaching thousands of users with a message intended to undercut U.S. military assistance to Ukraine.

Knowing what they’ve up to is important. No surprises. But busting their dangerous moves is going to take an equal and opposite explosion of intelligence energy from the left and middle of crazy.

So, we better start fueling our engines now. Right now.


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