Twitter has been flooded with fake images over the past three days, with conspiracy theorists claiming the devastating fires on Maui were started by lasers shot from space. One photo in particular has over 7.6 million views, appearing to show a laser descending from the sky. But it’s completely fake.
The laser photo has been spread by multiple accounts on Twitter, which now calls itself X, but perhaps the most viewed version of the image is from Matt Wallace, a far-right influencer who often interacts with Twitter owner Elon Musk.
But the photo, which was originally taken by Matthew Thayer for the The Maui News, is available on the Associated Press website for anyone to see. And there’s no laser beam.
Wallace appears to have flipped the image horizontally, which is a common tactic for people who spread misleading images on the internet. Why do they flip the images? Sometimes tools that are used to track down images online won’t recognize an image that’s been flipped, making it harder for fact-checkers to figure out where the unedited image came from.
The caption for the authentic photo at the AP reads: “The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.”
Wallace even followed up his viral tweet with a video filled with misinformation, suggesting the fires in Hawaii aren’t “natural.” But it should probably be noted that Wallace’s audio commentary includes bizarre malapropisms, including an instance when he refers to embers as “ambers.” Needless to say, this isn’t a wildfire expert.
To be clear, there’s no evidence that lasers or directed energy weapons of any kind were the cause of the fires in Hawaii. It’s not clear what first sparked the fires, but as the New York Times explained in a new article on Sunday, “extremely flammable, nonnative grasses” are a likely factor.
At least 93 people have died from the fires, according to the latest figures released by local officials. But the government warns that number could climb as rescuers on the ground get a better picture of the devastation.