By Thursday evening, more than 10 per cent of Oregon’s 4.2 million residents were under an evacuation order, according to state estimates. Uncontained wildfires fuelled by sustained global heating and extreme winds have burnt enormous swaths of land to a crisp, leaving the state’s air quality on par with some of the most prolifically polluted cities in the world. At the time of writing, up to 40,000 people have fled from their homes, joining tens of thousands of Washington and California residents threatened by historic wildfires in their states.
While firefighters struggled to contain dozens of Oregon wildfires, three of which officials said were likely to combine by Friday, local police found themselves combating a torrent of disinformation spreading as fast as any blaze; rumours that “Antifa” or other politically motivated groups were roaming the wilderness and lighting fires as part of some coordinated attack along the coast.
Facebook served as the primary vehicle for these falsehoods. In a matter of hours on Thursday, tens of thousands of users had shared posts all similarly claiming that “coordinated fires” were being set by groups of left-wing terrorists. According to the FBI, these claims have strained the resources of local fire and police agencies working desperately to bring the fires under control. The primary spreaders of this lie have relied heavily on legitimate news reports detailing the arrests of a handful of alleged arsonists in Oregon, Washington, and California — none of whom authorities claim were politically or ideologically motivated or linked to one another.
Reports that extremists are setting wildfires in Oregon are untrue. Help us stop the spread of misinformation by only sharing information from trusted, official sources. pic.twitter.com/ENc4c3kjep
— FBI Portland (@FBIPortland) September 11, 2020
Sometimes called paltering, the art of using small, truthful statements to convince people of a much grander lie is a common propaganda technique: In reality, the existence of arsonists is not controversial. To wit, arsonists do not cease committing arson simply because of naturally occurring wildfires. Indeed, while revenge, extremism, and profit are all recognised motivations for arson, other fire-setters seek “thrills, attention and recognition,” according to FEMA. A smaller number of fire-setters demonstrate no criminal intent, but are afflicted instead by a clinically recognised pathology; they are irresistibly compelled to observe and even travel toward fires — and in some cases, start them.
Close to midnight on Thursday, Facebook said that its third-party fact-checkers had rated as “false” the allegations of coordinated attacks, which had by that hour spread to hundreds of thousands of its users. Many of the primary spreaders of the claim had pointed their followers to a specific article from Law Enforcement Today (LET), a website that describes itself as being “owned and operated by law enforcement.” Facebook had taken action to limit the reach of the article, a spokesperson said in an email. But by noon Friday, it had still garnered more than 338,00 interactions, including 71,000 shares, according to data from Facebook-owned social analytics platform CrowdTangle.
Titled, “Source: Series of wildfires on the West Coast may be ‘coordinated and planned’ attack,” the LET article apparently relied on police sources to claim that authorities had been “put on alert” and that incidents of arson in three states “may be” part of a “coordinated attack.” The article pointed to news reports of arson in Oregon and Washington, none of which indicated collusion between them.
The author included the following unsourced line: “There are current concerns and allegations that many of these people who have started fires may be related to Antifa. However, these allegations have not be [sic] confirmed.” The author does not specify with whom these “concerns” or “allegations” originate, and while they do not say the accusation came from one their law enforcement sources, they do nothing to dissuade readers of the notion. No attempt is made to rate the allegation’s veracity, beyond saying it has yet to be confirmed.
LET’s reported allegations of a coordinated attack arrived while as many as four police agencies in Oregon were actively pleading with the public to ignore that rumour specifically. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office had, just a couple hours before, started chiding panicky residents over their irrational behaviour, which had begun impacting its emergency response: “Rumours spread just like wildfire,” the sheriff’s office wrote, “and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumour that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON.”
“One increasingly problematic issue related to the disastrous fires in Jackson County is the spreading of false information,” the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office wrote on Facebook, adding: “Please don’t re-post and spread misinformation based on some unverified random post or meme. Rumours make the job of protecting the community more difficult.”
“Oregon’s first responders are scrambling to keep Oregonians safe from the wildfires ravaging our state,” Senator Ron Wyden said in an email. “The last thing they need is a deluge of calls prompted by spurious conspiracy posts. Facebook continues to move far too slowly to clamp down on the spread of misinformation, particularly by fringe right-wing websites and personalities.”
On Twitter, one independent journalist reported that residents of Molalla, Oregon, had called the police after they’d travelled to film fires in the area. Members of a private Facebook group called Molalla NOW allegedly threatened to shoot the individual “on sight,” according to screenshots shared on Twitter.
I am officially #AntifaTerrorist. Went out to Molalla, filmed some fires. Locals reported me to the police, and are looking for me to "shoot on sight." Within an hour of this post there were 180 comments, including a desire to "shoot on site" and to deputize locals. pic.twitter.com/UPrxBabPpp
— EverythingUndertheSun (@sun_everything) September 10, 2020
Another group of journalists in Molalla, including one employed by Oregon Public Broadcasting, reported that three men had pulled guns on them “at a militia style checkpoint.” Their licence plates were photographed, they said, before they were told to “get the fuck out of here.”
— Alissa Azar (@R3volutionDaddy) September 10, 2020
I asked this gentlemen if he was threatening us, he said he wasn’t.
Him and another man with a gun told us to “get the fuck out of here” and took a picture of my plates https://t.co/l4L9oOLRl4
— Sergio Olmos (@MrOlmos) September 11, 2020
Late Thursday evening, Law Enforcement Today made numerous changes to the article, which included removing the dubiously sourced claim that there were “concerns” about Antifa’s involvement. No changes were made to the headline. “Contrary to rumours that have been circulating, there is currently no evidence to tie the wildfires to either far-right or far-left activists,” the top of the article now reads. Warnings about the effects of rumours during an emergency, which were not originally present, were likewise added.
Kyle Reyes, the national spokesman for Law Enforcement Today, emphasised in an email that while LET did cite a police source claiming fires may be part of a “coordinated and planned” attack, LET did not attribute the claim to any specific group or political ideology. “[W]e never said the fires were politically motivated,” Reyes said in an email (emphasis his), a point he reiterated in subsequent emails.
“Please understand that an investigation that something may be ‘coordinated and planned’ doesn’t reference a specific group — left or right. And an investigation is just that — an investigation, where evidence is gathered and a determination is made one way or the other. The alert was shared to make people aware that they should keep their eyes open in the event that this was a legitimate threat,” he said (again, emphasis his).
Reyes, who said he had spent four days with the Portland Police Department and only left the city yesterday, said that federal law enforcement officials had purposely leaked to LET that they were investigating these alleged “planned attacks.” “They asked that we let people know to stay alert and keep eyes out for anyone trying to spark fires,” he said.
“Having additional eyes keeping watch for people lighting fires — regardless of what the politics of those criminals may be — is something that can help stop the spread of this disaster,” he continued. “In these trying times, we need to focus on stopping a problem… not debating the politics behind it. The safety and security of everyone depends on it.”
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A Facebook spokesperson said in an email that in addition to reducing the distribution of posts responsible for rumours about the wildfires, it had added “strong warning labels for people who see it, try to share it, or already have.” LET’s own post, which garnered nearly 4,900 shares, contains no such label.
In a later exchange with Gizmodo, Reyes said that his reporters were working on a story for Law Enforcement Today. He included a screenshot of this reporter’s Twitter account, which at the time bore the name “Resident of Antifa,” a quote by President Trump who during a campaign event Thursday gave a speech about “Antifa” moving into suburban neighbourhoods. (“‘Say darling who moved in next door?’ ‘Oh, it’s a resident of antifa,’” the president said.)
Questions from Reyes included: “Is the reason you are rabidly attacking Law Enforcement Today and trying to discredit our sources because you in fact are a self-proclaimed member or supporter of Antifa?” and “Are your editorial or management teams aware of your affiliation with Antifa?” This reporter explained the Antifa joke to Reyes and notified him that LET was free to print that he is “Antifa,” and that any death threats received as a result would be forwarded to Gizmodo’s legal counsel.
“I’ve spoken to Dell about being antifa and he promises to stop being so antifa,” Gizmodo Editor in Chief John Biggs responded.