Image of Hawaii islands superimposed over image of fire

Molly Butler/Media Matters

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Conspiracy theorists and right-wing media fabricate evidence that Lahaina fire was deliberate

YouTube and Meta are making money from content amplifying these conspiracy theories

Right-wing media and conspiracy theorists are using Hawaii’s recent fires — including the most deadly U.S. wildfire of the past century — to repurpose misinformation, cast doubt on the role of climate change, and vilify the state’s ambitious renewable energy goals while spreading bizarre conspiracy theories, including claims that the fires were secretly started by “directed energy weapons” from a Chinese satellite. 

YouTube and Meta are profiting off of ads on content that amplifies this harmful misinformation.

The fires, which have killed over 100 people in the historic community of Lahaina on the island of Maui and caused billions in damage, have joined a whole host of other climate change-fueled disasters in sparking unfounded accusations of foul play on social media. Over 800 are still missing. 

  • Conspiracy theorists and right-wing media personalities use images and footage, some of which have been doctored, to claim the fire was caused intentionally

  • While smoke from Canada’s wildfires blanketed U.S. cities in June, claims that these fires had been set deliberately by the U.S. government or some other antagonistic force, proliferated on TikTok. These conspiracy theories were revived during the recent Hawaii wildfire, giving rise to more misleading content.

    Images of completely unrelated events such as a SpaceX rocket launch or an oil refinery explosion, as well as doctored images of the actual Lahaina fire, were held up as proof that the public did not know “the truth” about what happened on Maui. The BBC and The Associated Press were quick to contextualize the misleading content, some of which received millions of views on Twitter (recently rebranded as X), TikTok, and Instagram. 

    Other conspiracy theorists continued to insist the damage caused by the fire looked in some way suspect. Videos of melted cars on Lahaina’s iconic Front Street, burnt boats in the marina, and aerial shots of the decimated neighborhoods served as evidence that this was not the work of a regular wildfire, according to right-wing media personalities and online conspiracy theorists who cited some vehicles and palm trees that appeared to be less damaged than their surroundings. (“It’s actually very common that wildfires will burn out structures and vehicles but leave surrounding trees, utility poles, and other vegetation unscathed,” Michael Gollner, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who leads a fire research lab at the University of California, Berkeley, told AP News.)

    • Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk suggested there is a cover-up happening in Lahaina, comparing the aftermath of the fires to the Chernobyl disaster: “There is something else going on here,” Kirk said. “This feels like Chernobyl. That something happened here and they do not want the world to find out.” [Real American’s Voice, The Charlie Kirk Show, 8/21/23]
    • Newsmax host Greg Kelly suggests what happened in Maui wasn’t a forest fire: “I'm sorry, it doesn't look like one to me.” “Everything is crazy right now,” Kelly explained. “For instance, you know what happened in Maui. Actually, I don't think anybody knows what happened in Maui. This was a forest fire? I'm sorry, it doesn't look like one to me. I noticed in the early stages of this disaster, no one was really — excuse me — talking about the cause. It was just well, this horrible, horrible fire, But how did it start? Power lines? There are a lot of strange patterns that people are noticing. I don't think we have the full story yet.” [Newsmax, The Greg Kelly Show, 8/15/23]
    • Right-wing commentator Lana Asanin: Maui fire was a “devious act by the gIobalist oligarchs.” “‘A Fire That Melted Metal’ A DEW strike of catastrophic proportions in Maui. Devious act by the gIobalist oligarchs. It takes over 1200° degrees for many minutes in exact area to melt aluminum like this. Yet the pavement/concrete is not scorched at all. Even the trees didn’t burn. Doesn’t this question you at all ? #MauiFires #Hawaii.” [Twitter/X, 8/14/23]
    • Video with 5.2 million views shared by conspiracy theory account Truth Pills: “This fire thing on Maui doesnt add up. How did all the boats on the water burn as well and there is a perfect circle of fire around the city.” [Twitter/X, 8/11/23]
    • QAnon account CBKNews, whose posts have garnered hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok, posted supposed screenshots taken from other social media with the caption: “Maui Hawaii two nights ago, it was an attack!!!!!!!?” A community note was later added to the post explaining that the image actually “dates back to a 2018 event in Michigan” and shows “a combination of a meteor, a fire, and a cold-weather phenomenon.” [Twitter/X, 8/10/23; Snopes, 1/18/18]
  • Right-wing media baselessly claims that arsonists started the fire

  • As news of the fire spread, right-wing media jumped to the evidence-free conclusion that it was the work of one or more arsonists — a drumbeat used time and time again to delegitimize concerns about the role of climate change and extreme weather during wildfires. 

    Scientists have warned that a buildup of dry fuel during unusually hot and dry weather driven by climate change creates the perfect conditions for wildfires to spread quickly. In the case of Hawaii, a confluence of factors including flash droughts in July, an “abundance of dry grass,” and high winds from Hurricane Dora made the fires deadly. An investigation as to what exactly caused the fire is still underway, but video footage suggests it could have been a faulty power line run by the state’s energy utility which malfunctioned during the heavy winds. 

    • The Daily Wire's Michael Knowles suggested “radical environmentalists” set the Maui wildfires and that recent evidence pointing to malfunctioning power lines was “a weak theory.” “The main theory of how the fire started, the one that you have most likely heard because it's the favorite of the establishment media, is that it was caused by catastrophic climate change, which, of course, it was not because catastrophic climate change or global warming or global cooling or whatever they're gonna call it tomorrow, is not real,” Knowles said. “Compared to the most likely culprit. Not just the most likely culprit in my mind, but, apparently, in the mind of Hawaiian officials. And that's arson. … And who would do such a thing? We can't say for certain who might have done it here, but we can say for certain the answer to who would do such a thing. And the answer is environmentalists.” [The Daily Wire, The Michael Knowles Show, 8/21/23]
    • Infowars’ Alex Jones says Maui wildfires are “staged.” “And they've busted antifa and leftists all over the world,” Jones claimed. “Big fires in France right now, big fires in Germany. When the winds get high and it's dry, out come the Extinction Rebellion leftists. … They had emergency crews stand back and only protect elitist properties with the fire departments. So this is staged, but it wasn't done with a laser. Even though that's sexy and fun to talk about. It was done with a lighter or matches and gasoline. You can bet your bottom dollar on that.” [Infowars, The Alex Jones Show, 8/14/23]
    • Executive director of climate denier organization CO2 Coalition Gregory Wrightstone said on OAN’s In Focus that the wildfires were “probably human-caused” even though “we haven’t seen any arrests for arson.” “The other interesting thing about Hawaii: Very, very few thunderstorms occur, so there were no noted lightning strikes during this period, so these were all probably human-caused and we haven't seen any arrests for arson,” Wrightstone said. “We know that two months ago, several people were arrested for setting fires.” [OAN, In Focus, 8/13/23]
    • Steve Bannon said Hawaii fires were not influenced by climate change: “They’re saying it’s all climate change, climate change, climate change,” Bannon claimed. “You watch, when we find out, I believe 85% of these wildfires are started by humans, and right now they haven’t said — they’re saying they’re still investigating. So the climate change thing is just another part of the climate change cult, talking about this fire being a part of climate change.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 8/11/23]
    • Right-wing health influencer Mike Adams said the fire was started by “climate cultists trying to blame climate change.” “Was the catastrophic, deadly fire in Maui, Hawaii started by a #climate cultist trying to blame climate change for more disasters? No way to know for sure, but we've seen MANY cases of left-wing arsonists caught trying to start wildfires, which the left-wing media blamed on ‘climate change.’ Remember, there's NOTHING these lunatics won't do to terrorize the planet into obeying their climate cult agenda.” [Twitter/X, 8/10/23]
    • Frequent Fox News guest and climate change denier Steve Milloy: “Hawaii state officials suspected arsonists were at work in Maui previously. Now it is more expedient to blame 'climate change.' Scoundrels.” [Twitter/X, 8/10/23]
  • Internet trolls blame 15-minute cities, renewable energy for the fire

  • Conspiracy theorists have speculated that a so-called direct energy weapon attack could be motivated by a land grab facilitated by celebrities with property on the island or an attempt by globalist elites to clear the historic town of Lahaina to make way for an AI-governed smart city or a so-called 15-minute city.

    There is no evidence to back any of these claims. While some celebrities do own homes in Maui, their properties are not near Lahaina. And needless to say, discussions of smart city technology and AI have been internationally ubiquitous for years. (These two concepts are separate from 15-minute cities, though some conspiracy theorists have conflated the ideas or used the terms interchangeably.) Though these concepts have faced some legitimate skepticism, there is simply no connection to the wildfires.

    • Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones said “globalists” wanted to make Maui a “smart island.” “There's no way that government was that incompetent,” Jones said. “They've had the globalists licking their lips, declaring they're going to make it a smart island. They have a conference coming up in just a week and a half. Oprah Winfrey and Zuckerberg and all of them saying they've been trying to force people to sell their land.” [Infowars, The Alex Jones Show, 8/16/23]
    • Conspiracy theorist and crypto influencer Matt Wallace spread viral misinformation about the fires on Twitter and YouTube: “Now, A Lot of Those Locals Are Forced To Sell Their Land and Many Tragically Died in The Flames. Oprah Winfrey Has A Luxury Mansion in Maui; It’s Completely Fine. Jeff Bezos Has A Luxury Mansion in Maui; It’s Completely Fine. Lady Gaga Has A Luxury Mansion in Maui; It’s Completely Fine. Bill Gates Has A Luxury Mansion in Maui; It’s Completely Fine. Morgan Freeman Has A Luxury Mansion in Maui; It’s Completely Fine. Will Smith Has A Luxury Mansion in Maui; It’s Completely Fine. Julia Roberts Has A Luxury Mansion in Maui; It’s Completely Fine. HOW DID THE FIRE KNOW TO AVOID THE MOST EXPENSIVE MANSIONS? WAKE UP!” [Twitter/X, 8/13/23] [YouTube, 8/13/23]
    • Conspiracy theorist and podcast host Liz Churchill: “Problem…Reaction…Solution. Hawaii allegedly voted to be the first AI governed WEF ‘Smart City’ Concentration Camp…and suddenly there’s a ‘Climate Change’ fire…and now they need to rebuild due to the ‘Climate Change Disasters’ that they are trying to pawn off as ‘natural’.” [Twitter/X, 8/15/23]
    • Conspiracy news show Redacted: “Are the fires in #Maui a land grab scheme? Is it part of a WEF plan to make Maui a 15-minute island using only renewable energy? We'll explore the facts using U.S. government data and public sources, so you can draw your own conclusions.” #MauiFires #RenewableEnergy” [Twitter/X, 8/15/23]

    To back up their claims, conspiracy theorists have fixated on a Digital Government Summit to be held in Honolulu in September, as well as a conference on information technology management that occurred in January. Both events have been occurring annually for years (the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences has been happening since 1968) and host discussions on a wide array of topics, not just AI and smart cities. 

    Renewable energy opponents have also circulated a speech that Hawaii Gov. Josh Green made at the United Nations Economic and Social Council in July touting the state’s sustainability accomplishments, and a 2018 article from the World Economic Forum doing the same. But Hawaii’s own legislature has long been working toward its clean energy goals, and it isn’t surprising or controversial that its achievements are being internationally recognized. 

    In Europe and the U.S., initiatives aiming to reduce traffic and curb pollution have triggered conservative fearmongering over the idea of 15-minute cities, an urban planning concept that necessities such as schools and grocery stores should be just a short walk or bike ride away, reducing the need to regularly commute substantial distances. Instead, right-wing media have inaccurately painted 15-minute cities as open-air prisons that would severely restrict travel.

    • QAnon streaming show Woke Societies: “I'm sure it was just a coincidence this tragedy occurred a month before the Digital Summit of 2023. My tin foil hat is tingly.” “Do you really wanna know what happened to Maui? This was perfectly orchestrated by elites like Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bezos, and other celebrities to pour money into Lahaina Maui to usher the first smart city controlled by AI. … And I'm sure it was just a coincidence this tragedy occurred month before the Digital Summit of 2023. My tin foil hat is tingly. What do you think?” [Twitter/X, 8/14/23]
    • Right-wing conspiracy theorist Mindy Robinson wrote that “climate tyrants” will use the fire to “rebuild it as some dystopian ‘smart city.’” “How long before you think these climate tyrants use the Maui fire as an excuse to rebuild it as some dystopian ‘smart city’ …on the tax payers dime, of course? Anyone else getting tired of watching our government fail, so the criminals in DC can profit off murdering us?” [Twitter/X, 8/14/23]
    • Writer Efrat Fenigson said the goal of the fires was to turn a “historical town” into an “entire island governed by AI” with “everything electric.” “Remember ‘Build Back Better’? The picture gets clearer after reading this: ‘The government of Hawaii states goal for rebuild is to make the entire island of Maui the first Smart ISLAND. They want the entire island governed by AI as outlined in the Hawaii Digital government summit of 2023 that they have planned to host next month Monday, September 25, 2023 on Maui. Plans to implement a Digital AI government in Hawaii. … Last January of 2023 there was a Smart City Conference in Maui to turn Maui in an entire smart city ISLAND. Pushing everything electric and making 15 minute smart cities. Lastly there was a contract last year that was signed to build high-rise condos and businesses in Lahaina.. which was a historical town that couldn’t have any new development done to it.. but now? It can.#MauiFire” [Twitter/X, 8/14/23]
    • Health influencer Raylene Short in a video on TikTok with over 1 million views argued that the goal of the fires was to clear the way for 15-minute smart cities and making “the entire island governed by AI.” “The government of Hawaii states their goal is to rebuild and make the entire island of Maui the first smart island. They want the entire island governed by AI, it’s outlined in the Hawaii Digital Government Summit of 2023 that they plan to host next month on September 25, 2023, on Maui. Wow, now they’re going to come to the rescue for this horrible problem. And last January in 2023 there was a smart city conference in Maui, to turn Maui again into the smart city island, pushing everything electric, making 15-minute smart cities.” [TikTok, 8/13/23]
    • In a video with nearly 400,000 views, one TikTok creator claimed that the fires were in response to “pushback” against making Lahaina a 15-minute city and alluded to the use of “directed energy weapons.” “The plan was to do something to Lahaina and turn it into a smart city. They were talking about smart streets, smart cars, smart cities. Well, what’s a smart city? Or a 15-minute city? Look it up, 15-minute city. A 15-minute city is basically a big-ass high rise. … That’s what they want to do. Who’s they? Well, you’re going to have to look into that and figure that out because I’m not going to say it on this platform. … When they pushback, all of the sudden, there’s a fire.” [TikTok, 8/14/23
    • CBKNews: “Maui Hawaii DEW 15 minute city world economic forum wef Klaus Schwab laser #MauiFires Lahaina #lahainafires Hawaii #hawaiifires direct energy weapon Joe biden is a pos. There are no coincidences.” [Twitter/X, 8/14/23]
  • Chinese satellite and “Directed Energy Weapons” become scapegoats

  • For years, conspiracy theorists have attributed wildfires to government weapons supposedly capable of doing so from space and passing them off as accidental. The idea has resurfaced once again as images and videos purporting to depict a so-called “directed energy weapon” being used to start the fire in Hawaii have spread online.

    • QAnon influencer John Sabal, known online as QAnon John: The fire was started “to DESTROY the island of Maui using Directed Energy Weapons.” “Just made a thread on X about the TRUTH on what is happening with the MAUI WILDFIRES. here is a COORDINATED effort to DESTROY the island of Maui using Directed Energy Weapons, to build a WEF ‘Smart City’ in its place, that is governed completely by Artificial Intelligence!” [Telegram, 8/13/23]
    • QAnon influencer Michael Jaco said the fire was aused by directed energy weapons in coordination with a human-made hurricane. “DEW used to start and target these fires at just the right time as their HAARP created hurricane passes to the south. Probably on it's way to China. At least 36 dead as fires lay waste to Hawaii, county reports.” [Twitter/X, 8/10/23]
    • Conspiracy theorist Stew Peters: “The Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) being used on Hawaii are powerful enough to set the Pacific Ocean on fire.” [Twitter/X, 8/10/23]
    • Stew Peters: “Only a Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) can cause this kind of destruction.” “Lahaina, Maui has been RAZED to the ground. The claim that the these ‘wildfires’ were spread by hurricane force winds is bogus bc along with hurricane winds comes LOTS of RAIN. Only a Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) can cause this kind of destruction.” [Twitter/X, 8/10/23]
    • Health influencer and anti-vaccine influencer Daniel “Alec” Zeck: “I’ve had several people on Maui tell me they believe that the fires were caused by Direct Energy Weapons. We know the Agenda 2030 maps have ecological zones set aside that only select humans can live in. We know that they want climate lockdowns next.” [Twitter/X, 8/10/23]

    There is no evidence of a space laser targeting Hawaii, nor is there any indication of foreign interference tied to the wildfires. But an incident involving a Chinese satellite that occurred seven months ago is now being used to inaccurately blame China. 

    In late January 2023, a telescope on Mauna Kea picked an up image of green laser beams over Hawaii. The lights turned out to be coming from a Chinese satellite reportedly collecting data on pollution, but conspiracy theorists are now using the incident to suggest foul play behind the Maui fire.

    • Far-right commentator Chuck Callesto: “Chinese satellite has been caught on video BEAMING DOWN GREEN LASERS over the Hawaiian Islands.” “JUST IN: News clip from Jan 2023 reveals astronomers claiming Chinese satellite has been caught on video BEAMING DOWN GREEN LASERS over the Hawaiian Islands. I’ve seen A-LOT of images and laser talk on Hawaii, haven’t put much behind it until this.” [Twitter/X, 8/12/23]
    • Right-wing podcast host Chase Geiser suggests the wildfire was connected to “mysterious bright green lasers.” “Were Hawaii’s wildfires deliberately caused by China? In the shadows of Hawaii's sacred Haleakalā volcano, a situation with global implications is unfolding. Just a day before the Space Force grappled with a significant fuel spill atop this cultural landmark, mysterious bright green lasers lit up the night sky above the island, with suspicions pointing towards China. Could there be a connection?” [Twitter/X, 8/11/23]
    • Crypto influencer and right-wing conspiracy theorist Tara Bull suggested the lasers are also being used to obscure news about the fire: “Does anyone remember the Chinese lasers over Hawaii? ‘They can shut down any communication nodes if they believe the public is getting too much information.’ –Ray L'Heureux Are you paying attention yet?” [Twitter/X, 8/11/23]
    • Right-wing streamer Tim Pool defended past comments from Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-GA) claiming Rothschild-controlled space lasers were used to start a California wildfire in 2018 and suggested she was partly proved right in Hawaii. “Look, we are not on good terms with China right now,” Pool said. “How hard is it to start a fire? It’s ridiculously easy to start a fire. And they can fire lasers.” He later added, “Remember when Marjorie Taylor Green argued that there were like space lasers that could start fires? ... Well, I don’t know about all of that but I can tell you that we have video of lasers being fired from satellites.” [Timcast IRL, 8/10/23]
  • YouTube and Meta are allowing posts with misinformation about the fires to be monetized

  • On YouTube, ads appeared on videos promoting the idea that the fire was started by a directed energy weapon, meaning that both the creators and the platform profited. On Meta, posts pushing similar conspiracy theories were monetized, despite the fact that similar organic posts received fact-check labels, meaning that the ads violate Meta's own rules

    • An Instagram ad ran that included a video suggesting that the fire was started by a laser that “could be programmed for different wavelengths.” [Instagram, 8/22/23]


    • A Facebook and Instagram ad ran that included a video claiming that the fire was deliberately started as part of a government effort to control people using top-secret technology. [Facebook, 8/19/23]


    • YouTube monetized a video titled “Hawaii Maui Wildfires. We're LASER FOCUSED DEW.” [YouTube, 8/19/23]
    • An Instagram ad ran that claimed that the Mountain Dew flavor “Maui Burst” was a signal from those in power that the fire was caused by a directed energy weapon, or DEW, and that the government deliberately started the fire to build a smart city: One post claimed that “what happened in Maui was by no means an accident and this mountain dew (Direct Energy Weapons) Maui burst flavor is definitely not just a mere ‘coincidence’ either! Remember, this is exactly how witchcraft and occult works.” [Instagram, 8/15/23]
    • YouTube monetized a video from the conspiracy theory channel THE END OF THE BEGINNING with the title “SHARE THIS! GREEN LASERS FROM “SPY BALLOON” LIKELY MAPPED OUT TARGET FOR MAUI D.E.W!” [YouTube, 8/14/23]
    • YouTube monetized a video from a doomsday prepper channel with the title “Maui Fire Survival Lessons and Laser Weapons?” The creator said in the video, “There’s a lot of interesting timing based on new reporting surrounding things like laser weapons which may have some correlation depending on how you want to look at it.” [YouTube, 8/13/23]
    • YouTube monetized two videos about the fire from conspiracy theorist and crypto influencer Matt Wallace suggesting that a military weapon was used in Maui and the mansions of “elites” were purposefully spared. [YouTube, 8/13/23, 8/13/23]