Just before Christmas, one of the most heated threads in the history of the Aussie Meme Team Facebook group erupted and was locked by a moderator after 546 comments.
A user posted a screenshot of a viral tweet that compared the emergency response from Australia’s current prime minister, Scott Morrison, to that of two former leaders.
Naturally, it didn’t take long before commenters started to argue about the cause of Australia’s bushfires, the role of arsonists, and whether the world’s climate is changing.
Australia is experiencing one of its worst bushfire seasons on record, and coverage of the crisis has dominated the media as politicians and columnists argue ferociously about why, exactly, the fires are so bad.
We’re all familiar with shockingly off-topic Facebook fights. But group admins and users say the wall-to-wall bushfire drama is spilling over into online communities — even those completely irrelevant to climate change, bushfires and politics.
Adam Roberts is the administrator of Australasian Barbecue Alliance, a Facebook group with more than 79,000 barbecue enthusiasts. Roberts said it makes sense that every group has been discussing bushfires because they have touched the lives of all Australians.
“I watch our Facebook [group] pretty closely and fires have come up a few times,” Roberts wrote to BuzzFeed News. “[It] relates to total fire ban days, etc. We can’t use solid fuel on total ban days.”
OK, so a (tenuous) link there — but these fights are breaking out everywhere.
Sarah Thomas is an administrator of the Aussie Meme Team group where 104,000 users post image memes or links to articles. She said fights about climate change became more common as the bushfires worsened towards the end of 2019.
“We’ve had to remove members and delete posts where the comment sections gets out of hand,” she told BuzzFeed News in a message.
In particular, posts about Greta Thunberg became so acrimonious that the group’s admins decided to ban them.
“Some were humorous, but attracted so much hate we had to stop approving them altogether.”
Cassandra McLaren runs the drought-focused One Day Closer to Rain (Drought) Facebook group, which has nearly 50,000 members. She said deciding how to moderate debates specifically about the bushfires and climate change is a big part of running a Facebook group now.
“Everyone is talking about fires, and climate change definitely comes up. We moderate pretty hard on it,” McLaren told BuzzFeed News. “For us, it’s all about when it turns negative. Some posts we won’t even allow as it will definitely turn negative.”
Jarrod Horvath’s group Gardening Australia has had seen plenty of debates about the bushfires and its causes. He said he’s noticing that posts from the group’s 93,000 usually placid members are becoming more political during the bushfire crisis.
“It brings out the crazies on both sides, we end up with complaints left, right and centre, and we shut them down,” Horvath said.
He attributes the tension to how politicised the bushfires have become.
“Some people seem to agree with how the government is being run,” he said, “and that upsets many people to hear it, which causes arguments and brings opinions to be attacked, leaving a divide where it should be a united front.”
James Xandros is one of those people who’s been posting to groups about climate change during the bushfires. He’s shared antagonistic posts to ostensibly apolitical groups like Memewhile in Australia to annoy climate change deniers among its 34,000 members.
“They piss me off,” Xandros wrote to BuzzFeed News, “sprouting their Fake News generated Facts. Just giving them a dose of their own medicine. Shitstirring fuckwits is how I would describe it. It’s a leisure activity of the 21st century.”
Another poster, Daniel Fanning, said he sarcastically wrote “please remember that climate change is the only factor in the fires” in VCE DiscussionSpace (a group about final high school exams in the state of Victoria) to challenge the way the group’s 67,000 members were thinking about the fires.
“While I agree that [climate change] can exacerbate it, many people are claiming it to be the singular factor while ignoring other contributing factors such as arson.”
Fanning doesn’t think it matters that the group was created as a place to talk about study notes and practice questions, not politics.
“I feel it’s a good place for people to voice their opinion and partake in discussion with people of a similar age. I don’t mind the negative comments and feel they’re enjoyable to read regardless.”
Sarah Thomas said the constant barrage of negative comments and fights about the bushfires in Aussie Meme Team is getting her down.
“I feel like Australians in general have become more angry and social media feeds on indifferences and hate,” Thomas wrote. “Yeah i really just want to share Australian humour and lifestyle the way it used to be ❤.”
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