Federal responders in Hawaii targeted by social media disinformation

A conspiratorial website claims US Marines shot and killed agents from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This is false; there is no evidence to support the allegation, which comes from a site that has repeatedly published made-up stories about the military.

"Marines Neutralize Fleeing FEMA Convoy in Maui," says an August 20, 2023 headline from Real Raw News, a website AFP has repeatedly fact-checked for publishing disinformation.

The article accumulated more than 2,200 interactions on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. The headline also spread in videos and screenshots on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, attracting tens of thousands of views.

<span>Screenshot from Real Raw News taken August 23, 2023</span>
Screenshot from Real Raw News taken August 23, 2023
<span>Screenshot from Facebook taken August 23, 2023</span>
Screenshot from Facebook taken August 23, 2023

"Marines engaged and caught Fema agents burying bodies of men woman and children in shallow Graves when caught a shootout began which then neutralized the convoy!" says an August 23 post sharing the Real Raw News article on the X platform, formerly Twitter.

The claims are the latest in a series of conspiracy theories about the early August wildfires that devastated the seaside town of Lahaina on Maui, leaving at least 115 people dead and 1,100 missing. More than 1,000 federal responders have been in Hawaii to aid in the emergency effort.

FEMA has approved millions of dollars in assistance and deployed search and rescue personnel, according to an August 22 press release from the agency (archived here). More than 400 US service members are also helping in Maui.

Rumors of a shootout between the two groups are baseless -- AFP could find no credible reports supporting Real Raw News's story.

The website cites an anonymous "source in (General Eric) Smith’s office" to claim the Marines "'neutralized' a FEMA convoy that fled fire-stricken Lahaina for Haleakala National Park" on August 18.

The article goes on to say a Marine platoon "caught FEMA red-handed burying corpses in an earthen grave."

FEMA told AFP those allegations are "completely false."

"The Department of Defense is one of FEMA's strongest partners during disaster response and recovery efforts," an agency spokesperson said in an August 23 email. "We are currently working closely with service members in the response and recovery efforts for the Maui wildfires."

AFP contacted the Marines and Maui County officials for comment, but responses were not forthcoming.

A Defense Department spokesperson did however tell PolitiFact: "There is no truth to this claim."

Real Raw News has published many fabricated stories debunked by AFP, including baseless allegations of arrests and Covid-19 conspiracy theories. Social media users often share the articles as if they were true, despite a disclaimer on the website's "About Us" page saying it contains "humor, parody and satire."

In January 2021, media monitor NewsGuard reviewed Real Raw News and found "stories on the site generally promote conspiracy theories and other debunked claims, including about US politics" (archived here).

AFP has fact-checked other misinformation about the Hawaii wildfires here.