Misinformation about the source of the wildfires raging across the Pacific north-west is spreading rapidly on social media, prompting public officials to plead with the public to stop sharing rumors.
Many of the rumors claim without evidence that the fires were lit by political activists, either by the far-right group the Proud Boys or the leftist activists known as antifa.
“We are inundated with questions about things that are FAKE stories,” the sheriff’s office in Jackson county, Oregon, wrote on Facebook Thursday afternoon. “Rumors make the job of protecting the community more difficult,” the office added.
“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,” the Douglas county sheriff’s office posted on Facebook on Thursday.
Fire conditions not seen in three decades have fueled huge blazes in Oregon that have killed at least three people, destroyed several towns and forced the evacuation of communities from the southern border to the Portland suburbs. Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, said on Thursday that more than 900,000 acres have burned across the state in the last several days – nearly double the amount of land that usually burns in a typical year.
Although the Almeda fire in Ashland is the subject of a criminal investigation that is seeking to determine whether it was deliberately lit, public officials have batted down any suggestion of political motivation. The Ashland police chief told the Oregonian: “One thing I can say is that the rumor it was set by Antifa is 100% false information. We have some leads, and none of it points in that direction.”
“We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically influenced arson campaign,” a spokeswoman for the Oregon department of forestry told the New York Times.
The false rumors, especially about antifa, have spread wildly on Facebook and Twitter. One particularly potent piece of misinformation is an article by the website Law Enforcement Today, which cites a single anonymous “federal law enforcement source” who alleges that the wildfires across the west coast are part of a “‘coordinated and planned’ attack”. The article goes on to state, “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.”
By Thursday evening, the misleading article had been shared more than 63,000 times on Facebook, by groups and pages with more than 5m followers, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data analytics tool. Many of the groups and pages sharing the article are Republican, pro-police, or pro-gun organizations in Oregon.