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Maui residents grapple with rumors about the fire and aid as they try to rebuild

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As if the most deadly wildfires in modern U.S. history hadn't been devastating enough, Maui residents were then hit with rumors and conspiracy theories, making some people hesitant to seek help. NPR reporters in Hawaii heard from residents who distrusted government assistance and those who were wary of interference from outside their community. Joining me now to talk more about this are NPR's Huo Jingnan and Pien Huang. Hey to both of you.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

HUO JINGNAN, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So, Pien, I want to start with you. I know that you spent quite a bit of time on Maui after the fires. Can you just tell us what sorts of rumors and theories you heard?

HUANG: Yeah, there were a lot of them. I mean, people were bringing them up to me and to other reporters basically unprompted. And a few weeks after the fire, I spoke with Danilo Andres, who's a Lahaina resident. He told me about a popular rumor that the fires were started by satellites shooting lasers, and they could target his house.

DANILO ANDRES: The rumors - like I said, they got satellite in the sky. They just pinpoint the house. Why? They (inaudible) God or something? They just kill people already?

HUANG: You're not the first person who's told us that rumor.

ANDRES: The rumor is in the hotel right now, so everybody moving out.

HUANG: Andres said that the hotel shelters where he was staying were just basically a full-on rumor mill. You know, people were wondering if Oprah, who has an estate on Maui, was going to take their land. People heard there were bodies with bullet wounds being found in the water.

CHANG: Wow.

HUO: To be clear - right? - there's no factual basis for any of these rumors that we're sharing with you right now. But at the aftermath of any disaster, it's chaotic. Like, we hear rumors. Like, it takes time just for reliable information to get around, but people just want answers right away. So this information vacuum is great for rumors to arise. And, you know, even before there is social media, FEMA has said that rumor control is a part of emergency response for decades. And in recent years, researchers watching this have been seeing rumors and conspiracy theories arise repeatedly during natural disasters.

CHANG: Oh, interesting. Well, tell me more about what kind of impact you saw from these rumors and conspiracy theories.

HUANG: Yeah, I mean, the overall effect was that it was feeding into people not trusting the government, and that, you know, for instance, led some to disregard health advice. You know, just weeks after the fire, some people were back to living in their homes in the burn zone, even though health officials had warned that the air might not be safe, the water might not be safe and the structures might be compromised. And there were emotional impacts as well. Chris Arnold, a longtime Lahaina resident, said that rumors from social media were stoking fear.

CHRIS ARNOLD: You had my kids scared, thinking the damn military is going to take over, you know? The stupid [expletive] you put out there - these kids believe it. So pay attention to what you're posting.

CHANG: I mean, that is a great point. And I'm curious, Jingnan, you know, we're talking about things that people on the island were circulating - rumors, conspiracy theories. But as you were watching conversations about these rumors and theories unfold online, what did you notice?

HUO: Well, I noticed a lot of very familiar conspiracy tropes - so has a lot of other researchers. So some were around, like, there's a cover-up. There's an inside job. It is, like, people with power and wealth trying to exploit ordinary people in various ways. And there's also, like, climate change isn't real. Like, this is not why this is happening. So most of these are, like, domestic actors. And, you know, these are Americans on the internet, like, making up stories. So we see - you know, aside from the domestic actors, we also see foreign governments wading into the fray. We see accounts associated with the Chinese government, with past Chinese influence operations making up this story that the fire was actually caused by a weapon made by the U.S. government that is meant to control weather.

CHANG: What?

HUO: Yeah. I know. It's wild. What we should note is, even if they're making up stories, this network is not gaining a lot of influence. It's not getting a lot of engagement online. You have the Russian government doing a different thing. It's not making up stuff. It is just amplifying existing things, like, said by Americans online, like amplifying this opinion written by former Congressman Ron Paul, who says Biden cares about Ukraine more than Hawaii.

CHANG: Well, Pien, is there anything about Maui's history that might make the island and the communities there more vulnerable to rumors and false narratives like these?

HUANG: Yeah. I mean, the rumors - a lot of them were centered around the idea of the land being taken away and mistrusting people in power, governments in power, large companies. And these concerns are rooted in a real history of colonization, of the land being taken away from native Hawaiians. This is an undisputed fact. I mean, the U.S. government formally apologized for this in the 1990s. And today, there are still all these land disputes around tourism and agriculture and development. Native Hawaiians are currently worried that the fires are being used to tip the scales in this long-standing battle that they have over water rights.

HUO: You know, I'm just noting that, like, the rumors that are having impact on the ground - they're a little different from the rumors that we are seeing online. It's like, land issues is big on the ground. And while there is this, like, kernel of truth - like, this very real history for native Hawaiians on the ground - and so this is stuff that makes rumors powerful - like, kernels of truth. And we also need to bear in mind that, you know, rumors might be something we need to look out for as extreme weathers become more frequent in the future.

CHANG: That is NPR's Huo Jingnan and Pien Huang. Thanks to both of you.

HUANG: Thank you, Ailsa.

HUO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
Huo Jingnan
Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.
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