You should probably stop sharing these misleading viral 'maps' of the Australian bushfires


The bushfires currently tearing through Australia are enormous, devastating, and in many cases unprecedented.

But the difficulty of representing the scale and size of the blazes visually has unfortunately led to a number of viral photos on social media, which are either misleading or entirely faked.

It’s hard to stem the flow – especially when they’re being shared by celebrities and social media influencers – but it’s worth keeping an eye out for these ones in particular.


1. This ‘satellite photo’ of the bushfires

Though we certainly appreciate Rihanna spreading the word, the image itself is somewhat misleading. It pulls accurate data from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management Systems (FIRMS) and gives a correct view – at the time – of where fires were blazing, but doesn’t quite accurately represent scale. The glow of the 3D fire effect also makes the fires seem much larger than they actually are.

Brisbane-based creator Anthony Hearsey made a post, saying he did not intend to mislead with the image.

“This is a 3D visualisation of the fires in Australia,” he wrote. “NOT A PHOTO. Think of this as prettier looking graph.”

You can probably keep sharing this one – as long as you’re not calling it a satellite photo.


2. These alarming images and overlays from MyFireWatch

Let’s make something clear: sites like MyFireWatch, which is operated by the Western Australian government, provide a great service.

But its fire map isn’t intended to show an overall scale of blazes in Australia. Each indicator on the map represents a fire currently burning in Australia at any scale. That could be an enormous fire front, or it could be a small campfire, which has gotten out of hand.

Unfortunately, some users on social are using MyFireWatch maps as an overlay on maps as a guide for the severity of fires. Though it is accurate in pinpointing the location of fires and the size of Australia compared to the US, it isn’t giving you a proper understanding of the scale of the individual fires.


3. This totally inexplicable tweet from the US ABC News

The fact the fires are receiving international attention no doubt means news agencies in other countries may need to do some creative work to express the scale of the disaster in local terms.

This particular example received swift and unrelenting backlash from Australian users, who pointed out the fire-affected regions shown in the image do not at all correspond with reality. A correction has been issued…

… but this isn’t quite representative either. It’s a lot better (inasmuch as it isn’t completely made up) but as with the satellite photo the data points do not capture the scale of individual fires with much accuracy.

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