As wildfires devastate the West Coast, the FBI and local officials in California, Oregon, and Washington are also fighting the spread of something else: rampant misinformation.
Conspiracy theories about the wildfires are quickly spreading on Facebook. While they vary, most revolve around the idea that antifa, or anti-fascists, are responsible for the fires.
The most popular conspiracy theories claim that law enforcement arrested antifa members for starting wildfires. Or sometimes they’re a “first-hand account” from a friend of a friend who saw antifa starting a fire.
There is no proof of any of this occurring, a fact asserted by several police departments and the FBI.
Many of these wildfires were started by seemingly innocuous events or natural causes. For example, one of the fires in California was started by an explosive device used at a gender reveal party. A wildfire in Oregon has been traced to falling trees taking down power lines. Add in severe drought and heatwaves caused by climate change and you have a recipe for disaster.
Instead of spending all of their time and energy providing useful safety information, local law enforcement agencies have been forced to beg residents to stop spreading rumors.
The Medford Police in Oregon had to take the time to debunk a Photoshopped image of a fake post reportedly sent from its own Facebook account.
“This is a made up graphic and story,” states the post. “We did not arrest this person for arson, nor anyone affiliated with Antifa or ‘Proud Boys’ as we’ve heard throughout the day. Also, no confirmed gatherings of Antifa which has also been reported.”
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon also posted a similar warning. And it shared why these conspiracy theories are so dangerous: they’re consuming their already strained resources.
“Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in Douglas County, Oregon,” reads the statement. “THIS IS NOT TRUE! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.”
Wasted time and resources aren’t the only problems. The conspiracy theories are directly threatening people’s safety, too.
A group of independent journalists were stopped by armed men while reporting on the wildfires, according to a first-hand account shared on Twitter. Why? According to one of the journalists, the men believed the conspiracies they saw online and thought the journalists were antifa members looking to spark a fire.
Another photojournalist, Gabriel Trumbly, shared a similar experience. While Trumbly was taking video of the wildfires with his partner, someone at the scene took photos of their vehicle and posted it online. Rumors about the two being affiliated with antifa quickly spread on Facebook, where local commenters threatened to shoot the journalists, according to a report from BuzzFeed.
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
And now followers of QAnon are spreading wildfire conspiracy theory posts. QAnon is a false far-right conspiracy theory that claims President Donald Trump is secretly fighting to dismantle a worldwide satanic child-trafficking ring run by pedophiles in Hollywood and the Democratic Party.
QAnon followers’ beliefs often come from an anonymous online user or users known as “Q,” who posts vague messages for them to speculate about.
One of those posts included a link to a tweet from a Republican Senate candidate from Oregon, who was sharing a conspiracy theory about antifa and the wildfires.
Oregon is on fire! Pallet Company in Oregon City confirmed Antifa arsonist on camera. Douglas County Sheriff has 6 ANTIFA arsonists in custody. Many fires in Oregon. Obviously there are more to track down and arrest. Governor Kate Brown built this.
— Paul J. Romero, Jr. for OREGON 🤠🇺🇸 (@PJR4Senate) September 9, 2020
Unfortunately, misinformation about the wildfires may be one thing local officials can’t eventually put out.