As fires spread across the West Coast of the US, so do hoaxes and misinformation

As fires spread across the West Coast of the US, so do hoaxes and misinformation
Source: AFP via Getty Images
Though Antifa protesters have had contentious run-ins with law enforcement, authorities are urging people not to spread false rumors about the wildfires being started by arsonists. Responding to the hoaxes requires the use of resources that are already spread thin by the wildfires.

Much of the United States’ West Coast is on fire in what has become the worst wildfire season on record for California and one of the worst for Oregon and Washington. As of the first week of September, 4.7 million acres of the US have been consumed by fire since the first of the year.

As firefighters confront the deadly blazes, law enforcement agencies are battling another spreading menace: misinformation. In what has become an increasingly common phenomenon, social media and unscrupulous news sites have been spreading false rumors – in this case, that Antifa (or anti-fascists) are intentionally starting the fires.

Antifa, a loose association of leftist activists with no central leadership, are frequently the subject of hoaxes and misinformation online. The lack of structure means the group – in truth, more of a political philosophy – are easy scapegoats for a range of alleged crimes.

Though Antifa protesters have had contentious run-ins with law enforcement, authorities are urging people not to spread false rumors about the wildfires being started by arsonists. Responding to the hoaxes requires the use of resources that are already spread thin by the wildfires.

Law enforcement today

As wildfires have destroyed homes and taken lives across the West Coast, social media users have been spreading the rumor that the fires were intentionally set by arsonists and Antifa activists.

These rumors received a substantial boost from Law Enforcement Today (LET), a right-wing news site founded by Robert Greenberg. Greenberg is the police captain of Indian Creek Village, a Miami, Florida suburb that has fewer than 90 residents and has been dubbed the “billionaire bunker.”

LET’s September 10 article claimed the wildfires were “coordinated and planned.” The article was shared tens of thousands of times across Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, including to LET’s nearly 900,000 Facebook followers.

The site’s membership program, LET Unity, says it is made up of “law enforcement officers, veterans, active members of the military” and friends and family members. The site’s purpose is to tell the stories of the “silent majority” and to pursue “an America that’s even better than the one we’ve always known.”

The Antifa hoax spreads

The unsupported claim that Antifa has been strategically starting the wildfires was further spread by far-right conservatives and supporters of President Donald Trump, including Ian Miles Cheong, a Malaysian agitator known for his frequent criticisms of Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham made the same claim on her September 14 show, even though by then the rumors had been debunked. On the show, Ingraham and a guest discussed a speech given by Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden about the West Coast fires.

Ingraham asked, “Did Biden anywhere in that speech lay out his solution to prevent any wildfires in the future or the people intentionally setting them in California including Antifa?”

More conspiratorial-minded people have also latched onto the narrative that the wildfires have been intentionally set, though not necessarily by Antifa.

For instance, Armstrong Economics is a site that purports to “educate the general public and organizations on the underlying trends within the global economic and political environment.” The site claims – without evidence – that the fires have been started to prove climate change, which they contend is fake.

Law enforcement debunks the hoax

Both local and national law enforcement agents have pushed back on these rumors. A report from Oregon Public Broadcasting pointed to a Facebook post from the Douglas County Sherriff’s Office in which it labeled a rumor that six Antifa members were arrested for setting fires “untrue” in all capital letters. It also commanded people to “STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has also disputed these rumors, with FBI Special Agent In Charge Renn Cannon, the head of the Portland field office, stating reports of extremists setting wildfires had been investigated. Their conclusion: the reports are untrue.

“Conspiracy theories and misinformation,” Cannon stated, “take valuable resources away [from] local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control.”

With the rumors debunked by actual law enforcement officers, Law Enforcement Today changed the title of their original article and added an update in which it asserts “there is currently no evidence to tie the wildfires to either far-right or far-left activists.” It blames the spreading of such rumors on people only reading headlines and not the content of the article.

Russian disinformation

While the spreading of the rumors has been partially organic, according to Mother Jones, the stories have been furthered promulgated by the Russia-affiliated news site, RT (formerly Russia Today).

One particular article, “Portland police ask protesters not to start blazes amid statewide wildfire emergency,” was originally published on September 9 with the additional quote in the headline, “Antifa are thrilled to hear this.”

The story was about law enforcement in Portland “imploring protesters not to use fire during their demonstrations.” This was factually true, but, Mother Jones asserts, “RT goes out of its way to connect the current wildfire crisis with antifa, by eliding dates, and wrongly conflating incidents.”

The RT story featured three tweets by Andy Ngô, a journalist who is alleged to have close relations with white supremacist groups and is, like Cheong, an outspoken critic of Antifa and Black Lives Matter. The “Antifa are thrilled to hear this” quote was from Ngô.

This is not the first time RT has been accused of intentionally spreading misinformation. It is believed by many experts that the news agency is central to a Russian-backed effort to spread discord and uncertainty around COVID-19, as well as vaccines and the US’s 2020 election.

Confronting misinformation

One of the reasons misinformation can be hard to combat is that it is often steeped in some truth. For instance, in the case of the wildfire rumors, it is true that Antifa activists have been accused of setting fires in US cities, just not forest fires.

Additionally, in September, an Oregon man was charged for arson after he lit a fire behind a house in the small town of Phoenix, Oregon, which is located within the region that has been devastated by the Almeda fire. There is no evidence he was involved in starting the Almeda fire, which, as of September 15, local Oregon authorities were reporting had been 100% contained.

Furthermore, Antifa is regularly at the center of conspiracy theories and hoaxes. For instance, over the summer, there were numerous rumors spread online that Antifa activists were going to travel to small towns across the US to cause disruptions and violence. The rumors proved false, but the narrative that Antifa is dedicated to social destruction remains pervasive, nonetheless.

This is why law enforcement agencies across the country are urging social media users to not spread unproven rumors and only share information that has been validated by an official source.

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