Conspiracy theories falsely link US, Canada wildfires to 'smart cities'

Disinformation about the cause of this summer's deadly wildfires in the United States and Canada has run rampant across social media, with posts falsely blaming coordinated arson, lasers -- and plans to develop "smart cities."

Allegations that the fires are a deliberate policy to clear areas for urban redesign deploy screenshots of government websites or headlines about everything from traffic monitoring to conferences about new technology.

In one TikTok video, a woman points to Lahaina, Hawaii and West Kelowna, British Columbia -- both of which were ravaged in August -- and asks: "So what are the odds that we have two fires in two places within a week's time, and both of these places have initiatives to become smart-intelligent cities?"

In another video, shared on Facebook on August 27, 2023, a man scrolls a list of municipalities that participated in a "Smart Cities Connect" expo, saying: "Looks like there's going to be a lot of fires."

<span>Screenshot taken September 11, 2023 of the archived version of a TikTok video</span>
Screenshot taken September 11, 2023 of the archived version of a TikTok video
<span>Screenshot taken September 11, 2023 of a TikTok video shared as a Facebook reel</span>
Screenshot taken September 11, 2023 of a TikTok video shared as a Facebook reel

Some of the videos fact-checked by AFP are no longer available on TikTok, but copies and posts making similar claims continue to circulate on Facebook, Instagram and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Municipalities across North America are working to leverage smart technology to monitor transport, cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve residents' quality of life, but there is no evidence the movement seeks to purposely clear areas -- a theory that has amassed millions of views in clips shared across platforms.

Kelowna, governed separately from West Kelowna where homes were destroyed, did publish an "intelligent city" strategy in 2020 (archived here), but Andreas Bohem, a manager for the project, said the plans do not involve displacing people.

Its innovations include an artificial intelligence chatbot which can answer questions about zoning laws, a technology he called an "add-on" that people can choose to engage with.

Experts on the subject of modern cities drew a contrast between the online claims and ongoing development.

"I cannot conceive why a government would intentionally burn down a city to increase its use of smart city technologies," said Harvey Miller, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at The Ohio State University.

"There is no reason to destroy infrastructure to rebuild it smarter."

The conspiracy theories come amid widespread distrust in digitizing urban areas. A 2022 Axios-Momentive poll found only half of Americans are comfortable with the prospect of living in a smart city (archived here).

Kristina Dahl, principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said claims that fires are being used to force changes on communities were "utterly baseless."

"It is really horrific to think that anyone would intentionally burn a community to the ground so that they could install technology," she added.

- Real world impact -

Similar conspiracy theories have circulated online after other disasters in North America, including Hurricane Idalia in Florida and a February train derailment in Ohio.

In Canada, plans for smart cities are often linked to supposed climate lockdowns or the elimination of cash.

Sometimes the rumors make their way to the real world.

David Mitchell, the mayor of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, told AFP in May that a disinformation campaign targeted his city's participation in Canada's Smart Cities Challenge (archived here).

Posts falsely claimed the project would restrict residents' movement, leaving seniors worried that they would be unable to visit grandchildren.

In fact, Mitchell said the project (archived here) was focused on retrofitting homes to be more energy-efficient and to bring more public transportation online.

"That's where this is going from being simply an annoyance of people spreading lies, to really concerning for me and other communities across the country because people are legitimately scared," he said.

While conspiracy theories are damaging, Ohio State's Miller said that privacy in modern cities is a concern.

"You cannot monitor a city at high resolution in real-time without creating the possibility of identifying individuals and their patterns of activities," he said.

Experts urge transparency, pointing to a project that Sidewalk Labs, an arm of Google's parent company Alphabet, abandoned in Toronto, in part because it failed to assuage concerns over how data would be used.

Andrew Smyth, chair of the Smart Cities Center at Columbia University's Data Science Institute, said his team, which tests technologies in Harlem in New York City, as well as in New Jersey and Florida, is focused on "privacy-preserving" technology.

"I'm not aware of nefarious motives in the smart city movement," he said. "There's no real reason why cities would seek to control -- they are looking to gain efficiencies."