In the wake of the devastating wildfires on Hawai’i in August 2023, viral posts falsely claimed that the US government would only provide $700 in aid each to affected households.
In fact, the federal government responded quickly to the horrific disaster in Maui, conducting extensive rescue operations and providing aid far in excess of $700 per household.
Rumor: FEMA is only giving Hawaii wildfire survivors $700 per household.
Fact: This is not true. There is a range of federal disaster assistance available. Critical Needs Assistance provides a onetime payment of $700 to address immediate needs such as food, water and clothing. This is just one of several types of federal assistance you may be eligible to receive. As applications are reviewed, you can check your application status online or call 800-621-3362 to find out what types of disaster assistance you are eligible to receive.
Here’s one example of how this misinformation has spread on social media:
The fires in Lāhainā were devastating. With hundreds of homes lost and an increasing death toll, this is the deadliest US wildfire in 100 years.
The wildfires began on August 8, 2023. On August 10, the President approved a Major Disaster Declaration for Hawai’i, making federal resources available in response to the wildfires.
Resources include evacuation efforts by the National Guard, Coast Guard, and Department of Transportation. These resources also include healthcare, search and rescue, and meals. Additional funding is given to residents for housing and home repairs.
The President’s action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in Maui County. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners jumpstart their recovery.
For a more complete list of resources, click here.
Some Republicans and conservative commentators questioned President Joe Biden’s priorities after the government announced a further $200 million of security assistance for Kyiv as it battles Russia’s invasion, on the same day that people affected by the fires in Hawaii were offered $700 a household.
This is not the totality of the federal aid that will go to Maui, however. Although some figures have been released, the disaster recovery effort is in its early stages and further disbursements are expected in the days and weeks to come.
The aid being sent to Ukraine is also largely of a different sort. The bulk is defensive weaponry and equipment.
This last point is made vividly by the following Reddit post, titled: “damn corrupt americans, only sending weapons in ukraine instead of sending them to hawaii to kill the fires there“
USA Today fact-checks similar claims in the following article:
The claim: The US hasn’t shown support ‘surge’ for Maui like it did for Ukraine.
Our rating: False
Disinformation and influence campaigns: Using tragedy for political advantage
A report from Hawaii News Now:
A disinformation campaign that sprung up almost immediately after wildfires ravaged Maui was spread by China and Russia, researchers have concluded.
And, they say, that campaign made the government’s response to the disaster even more difficult.
From weather warfare to floating bodies on another island to thousands of missing children to a Maui land grab, experts say online posts about the wildfires might have started as genuine concern.
But they also said China and Russia are now using artificial intelligence to amplify false messages and spread fear, division and distrust in government.
Caroline Amy Orr Bueno, a University of Maryland postdoctoral research associate and digital deception expert, said the online rumors started the day after the Aug. 8 fire.
One phrase “Hawaii, not Ukraine” was similar in messaging to what was seen online after the Ohio train derailment disaster.
“They link that to the U.S. providing support to Ukraine. The idea is the reason that the aid to Hawaii was inadequate was because our attention and our resources were going to Ukraine,” said Bueno.
“It was the same narrative with this overarching idea pitting the support for Ukraine against support for a local community,” she added.
Further coverage of this research from the New York Times:
The wildfires in Hawaii — like many natural disasters these days — spawned numerous rumors, false reports and conspiracy theories almost from the start.
Caroline Amy Orr Bueno, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Lab for Intelligence and Security, reported that a coordinated Russian campaign began on Twitter, the social media platform now known as X, on Aug. 9, a day after the fires started.
It spread the phrase, “Hawaii, not Ukraine,” from one obscure account with few followers through a series of conservative or right-wing accounts like Breitbart and ultimately Russian state media, reaching thousands of users with a message intended to undercut U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. […]
“We’ve always been able to come together in the wake of humanitarian disasters and provide relief in the wake of earthquakes or hurricanes or fires,” said Mr. [Brad] Smith, [the vice chairman and president of Microsoft], who is presenting some of Microsoft’s findings to Congress on Tuesday. “And to see this kind of pursuit instead is both, I think deeply disturbing and something that the global community should draw a red line around and put off-limits.”
While the federal government has provided Hawai’i with extensive support, the U.S. also continues to send aid to Ukraine. FEMA assistance is not impacted by the budget being used for Ukraine’s territorial defense against Russia. Learn more about how FEMA is funded here.
One question that deserves to be asked is: Will cutting US aid to Ukraine actually mean more money available to help US residents in years to come? Many experts believe the opposite is actually likely to be the case.
[When criticism of Ukraine funding focuses on cost alone,] the end result not only chooses price over values like freedom and democracy. It ignores the fact that while the rising number of billions the United States is spending on aid to Ukraine keeps growing, the cost of aid to Ukraine is almost certain to remain comparatively low when compared to the total cost of U.S. security, is a vital investment in deterring future Russian and Chinese aggression, and is likely to save the United States substantial amounts of national security spending in the future.
Aid to Ukraine is a small percentage of the overall defense budget. Meanwhile, resources will continue to be available for Maui’s recovery.
The claim that aid to Ukraine came at the expense of Hawai’ians is false. Hawai’i disaster aid and US assistance to Ukraine were funded from separate sources. In addition, much of the US aid to Ukraine would not have been of any use to Hawai’i residents: e.g., weapons, munitions, and armored vehicles so out of date they are no longer in use by the US military.
In 2023, the US successfully supplied aid to both Hawai’i and to Ukraine. As a result of President Biden’s Disaster Declaration, emergency funding was quickly released to respond to the wildfires.
While wildfires devastated Hawaii, Russia and China took advantage of the opportunity to spread orchestrated disinformation and pit people against each other for political advantage.