Images and videos showing the wreckage on the Hawaiian island are spreading on social media, but not all are accurate. As is typical with natural disasters or similar breaking news events, some users have shared unrelated photos and videos to spread a conspiracy theory that the wildfires did not have a natural cause.
Claim: Images show a directed energy weapon beam that caused the Maui fires
This image is being shared on social media since the wildfires in Hawaii killed many and caused high-level destruction. It shows a light beam connecting the ground and sky, with smoke at the bottom. We see a hilly, green area with a beach and water in front of it, which could lead to the assumption that it might be Hawaii. The text reads, "This photo is circulating social media. Apparently, this beam was captured before the Hawaii fires. Can anyone confirm?"
Another image showing a beam of light connecting the ground and the sky is being shared on social media. In this particular post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the user claims that "the fire damage in Hawaii leaves open the question of whether the fire was caused by a [Directed] Energy Weapon (DEW)."
Both images are being used to spread the claim that the recent wildfires on Maui were started by weapons that use highly focused energy, like a laser, microwave or particle beam, to damage a target.
DW fact check: False
Both images are unrelated to the wildfires and are actually from events dating back to 2018. The first image has nothing to do with the Maui wildfires. It was taken on May 22, 2018, during the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in California at the then-called Vandenberg Air Force Base. It can be traced back with the help of a reverse image search. The photo was originally posted on SpaceX's Instagram account.
The second image isn't related to the Maui wildfires either. It can also be traced back through a reverse image search and shows a controlled burn at an oil refinery in Ohio on Jan. 16, 2018. The photo is from a Facebook comment on a post by The Canton Repository, a local paper, requesting that residents share images of the burn at the Marathon Petroleum refinery. And this image was then uploaded by a user called Travis Secrest.
Both images do not show DEW attacks, nor are they connected to the recent wildfires in Maui in any form. But this is not the first time this conspiracy theory has been spread. It first emerged during the 2020-21 California wildfires.
"Times of crisis are always a heyday of disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy myths. This has to do with the fact that the information situation itself is very precarious," says Prof. Dr. Lena Frischlich from the LMU-University of Munich in Germany and an expert on conspiracy theories.
But why do people claim that the fire was started intentionally and had no natural cause?
"This is an old narrative of conspiracy theories: behind big, threatening, bad events, actions of individuals or even of a small group of conspirators who prioritize their own well-being are also willing to accept the harm of the general public for them," explains Frischlich.
The user who claimed the still image of the Ohio refinery was proof of a DEW attack in Maui also tried to use this video on X as evidence — using the exact text as the previous post. However, the video the user attached is from Paradise, California, not from Maui, Hawaii, and from 2018. From the 40-second mark onward, the video can be geolocated here.
'Maui was destroyed intentionally to rebuild it with the 15-minute city concept'
Claim: Videos and images emerging from Maui show a DEW attack was planned on purpose to be able to implement the Smart Island plans.
DW Fact check: False
Many social media posts claim that a DEW attack was planned to clear the way and build a new Maui.
In this video, the user claims that he sees a connection between the wildfires, which caused a lot of destruction but did leave some infrastructure like roads intact, and a "smart city conference," which took place in January.
According to the user, the conference aimed to turn Maui into an entire "smart island." He claims, "It's almost as if they are resetting something to start rebuilding something" for the upcoming Hawaii Digital Government Summit in September.
Another user, claiming to be a resident of Hawaii, says in her viral video the Hawaii government wants Maui to become the first smart island and have the entire island governed by Artificial Intelligence. She adds that the city plans include "building a high-rise condo complex and business in Lahaina, which is a historic town that couldn't have any new development in the city area. But now it's demolished, so I guess they have to rebuild it."
Climate change is the official villain
"The idea that something as trivial as a small fire can cause such damage by chance and through a chain of unfavorable circumstances is at first a scary and threatening thought," explains media psychologist Frischlich.
"Conspiracy theories give it a kind of meaning. If individual people are to blame, then yes, it would be enough to hold that person accountable, and then such terrible things can't happen anymore."
Conclusion: All the images and videos presented as evidence that DEW attacks caused the August wildfires in Maui are false. The scenes are not from Maui, date back to 2018 and do not show DEW attacks.
Though the causes of the Maui wildfires are still being investigated, extreme weather conditions certainly played a role, according to official sources: a combination of conditions including hot weather, strong winds, and drought since May.
Astrid Prange de Oliveira contributed to this report.