As emergency responders in Oregon struggle to contain a record 900,000 acres of wildfires across the state, local police have been fighting to contain a torrent of bogus rumours spreading online. Throughout Thursday and Friday, tens of thousands of users shared posts blaming extremists on both sides of the aisle (but mostly antifa) for setting the blaze. The bulk of these falsehoods coalesced on Facebook, and now the platform says it’s enforcing a hard crackdown. Better late than never, I suppose.
“We are removing false claims that the wildfires in Oregon were started by certain groups,” Facebook’s policy communications director, Andy Stone, tweeted Saturday.
“This is based on confirmation from law enforcement that these rumours are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public. This is consistent with our past efforts to remove content that could lead to imminent harm given the possible risk to human life as the fires rage on.”
It marks a stark escalation compared to Facebook’s initial response. On Friday, a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo that it was reducing the distribution of posts responsible for rumours about the wildfires and adding “strong warning labels” onto existing posts.
But it still feels like far too little too late (you really think Facebook would have learned its lesson about the cost of inaction after the Kenosha shooting incident).
Reports of armed vigilantes accosting journalists and Oregon residents have been steadily pouring in over the last 48 hours as extremists attempt to “defend” the area against antifa, even after federal and state officials vehemently debunked these claims. The Portland branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigations even sent out a tweet Friday calling the rumours “untrue” and imploring people to stop spreading them.
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
Many of the adherents spreading these false claims point to a specific article from Law Enforcement Today that originally tied left-wing extremists to the start of the wildfires (it has since been updated with statements from local officials calling those rumours “100 false information”).
Facebook said on Thursday that its third-party fact-checkers had rated these allegations of coordinated attacks as “false” and it had taken action to limit the article’s reach. Though as of Saturday evening, the article still had more than 360,00o interactions, including more than 70,000 shares, according to data from Facebook-owned social analytics platform CrowdTangle.
As for Facebook’s takedown efforts, Stone said “enforcement is ongoing” on Twitter Saturday, which explains why when I search the phrase “antifa wildfires” it still brings up a few crackpots claiming this is all some sort of deep state conspiracy.