'Antifa arson' hoax rumors spread faster than wildfires in besieged West Coast rural areas
Fresh on the heels of spreading hoax rumors about “antifa buses” coming to rural towns to create mayhem, right-wing conspiracists eager to spread the narrative about the supposed existential threat posed by black-clad antifascist activists have a hot new fraud for their armies of gullible social-media followers: The forest fires raging along the West Coast from California to Washington are an antifa plot!
The rumors—spread first by far-right activists, then parroted by followers living in areas where the fires are raging—claim that a handful of arrests for arson in unrelated fires are proof that the fires are being coordinated by leftists intending harm to befall rural Trump-supporting regions. “It’s the antifa burning EVERYTHING down!” shrieked one QAnon believer who chimed in on Twitter.
Among the leading spreaders of the false rumors is a right-wing online publication catering to police officers, Law Enforcement Today, which posted an article claiming that the “wildfires on the West Coast may be a ‘coordinated and planned’ attack.”
“Law enforcement throughout the west coast is reportedly being put on alert to look out for ‘opportunists’ and those who may have more sinister motives,” the article claimed. It then went on to list six arson incidents either related to the fires or in their general vicinity, but offered no evidence that they were coordinated in any fashion.
Nonetheless, it claimed to have a warning from a federal law-enforcement source:
“We are reacting to a coordinated series of attempts to start fires anywhere and everywhere in Oregon. Public and Private lands, incorporated and unincorporated areas.
“By all indications so far in the preliminary stages of these investigations there is a coordinated effort on the part of these individuals to start fires in areas that are the least protected and most vulnerable then slowing working their way into more populated areas and neighborhoods.”
The article adds a caveat at the end: “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 confirmed.”
The claims spread faster than the fires themselves on social media—and so did calls to rural police departments. In Molalla, Oregon—which is surrounded by the fires and was given Stage 3 evacuation orders Thursday—the police department posted a plea for people to call 911 and report “any suspicious activity (strange people walking around/looking into cars and houses/vehicles driving through neighborhoods that don’t belong there),” because “a lot of rumors and posts are going around about looters.”
This plea was promptly interpreted by right-wing conspiracists as the work of antifa. Far-right provocateur Katie Daviscourt retweeted the police bulletin with a message of her own: “WARNING: Multiple sources in Emergency Response have confirmed that the fires along the West Coast are caused by dozens of arsonists,” she wrote. “These fires are allegedly linked to Antifa and the Riots.”
Shortly afterward, Molalla Police posted an update to their original bulletin: “This is about possible looters, not antifa or setting fires. There has been NO antifa in town as of this posting about 02:00 a.m. Please, folks, stay calm and use common sense.”
A somewhat more mainstream Republican figure—failed senatorial candidate Paul Romero, who lost to QAnon cultist Jo Rae Perkins in Oregon’s May GOP primary—tweeted out a similar warning: “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.”
Similarly, in Medford, Oregon, someone began circulating a fake Facebook post claiming to be from the local police department, reporting “5 Proud Boys arrested for arson.” The department posted a correction labeling the fake post “False,” explaining: “This is a made up graphic and story. 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.”
Likewise, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Roseburg, next door to Medford’s Jackson County, responded to the rumors posted by Romero and others with a Facebook post urging residents to reel it in:
Remember when we said to follow official sources only. Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident even harder? 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.
THIS IS NOT TRUE! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.
Do your part, STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!
The pushback from local law enforcement—already grappling with ensuring people endangered by the fires had accurate information—appeared to have little to no effect on the people spreading the rumors on social media. In particular, the Twitter feed of Daviscourt—a representative of the right-wing campus organization Turning Point USA from Seattle best known for marching with Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer at far-right provocation events in Seattle and Portland—became a nonstop parade of posts reporting on various arson incidents related to the fires.
None of the incidents she cites, in fact, are linked in any definitive way to antifascists. One arson suspect is suspicious because he has tattoos whose content are unspecified. Another claimed that a Portland antifascist was the subject of a manhunt in Albany, though there appeared to be no relationship between that case and the fires. One claims that a glass found in a grassy field with paper in it was an “incendiary device.”
The response on Facebook and elsewhere was hysterical, intermingled with defenses of Donald Trump. “Gee the Medford police arrested 7 antifa members for arson you libs are despicable! And gee was he supposed to panic the whole United states you libs seem to forget china lied the corrupt dnc rats also helped spread the covid bs! Do some research smfh,” one read. Another ranted: “@OregonGovBrown 7 of your Antifa terrorist started the Medford fires!!! You EVIL MARXIST need to step down NOW!! Those of you that lost your homes or business SUE THE SHIT OUT OF KATE BROWN!! Run her out of office along with @tedwheeler.”
One pleaded to Trump: “Please help!!!! Southern Oregon on Fire, our Governor is nuts, and the fires that are happening are a terrorist attack by Anitfa…”
In reality, many of the fires remain under investigation, according to Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry, who told the New York Times that officials have seen no evidence whatsoever that the fires are the product of an organized effort. “We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically-influenced arson campaign,” Krawczyk said.
Nonetheless, the false rumors appear to have provoked the same heavily armed response by vigilante militiamen as the “antifa buses” hoax in the affected rural areas. Portland videographer Scott Keeler traveled to the Molalla area intent on reporting on the efforts there to flee the flames and combat them, but discovered that locals had pegged him for a nefarious antifa activist and reported him to police.
“Two vehicles on scene and two guys wearing gas masks and ‘press’ vests,” reported a Molalla local on Facebook. “KEEP YOUR EYES OUT. ALREADY REPORTED FIRE AND PLATE NUMBERS TO 911.”
“Are you kidding me shoot em,” responded a commenter.
“This was kinda funny to me at first,” Keeler commented. “However, after talking to Molalla PD, I was way too close to getting shot tonight. If my partner didn't see one of the reposts, I was planning to go back a few hours later and film some more. Sounds like I would have been met [by] armed citizens.”
Indeed, another journalist, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Sergio Olmos, was greeted with precisely that response when he and other journalists attempted to report from the same area: Two men armed with semiautomatic rifles confronted them on the roadway at a militia-style checkpoint and told them to “get the fuck out of here.”
“It’s scary knowing there are people who legitimately think ‘antifa liberals’ are setting these towns on fire,” tweeted one of the other journalists with Olmos, Alissa Azar. “We are very clearly documenting and interviewing folks. Our pictures were taken and so was the car and license plate.”
She later added: “I’m gonna be completely honest... that was scary as hell. Before [freelance journalist] Justin [Yau] walked over one of the men cocked his assault rifle at me. They were 3 large assault rifles and extremely confrontational. We’re dressed in normal clothing and we’re wearing our press credentials.”
When Australia was ravaged by wildfires last winter, the efforts to keep people safe and combat the blazes were endlessly complicated by misinformation that spread faster on social media than the fires themselves—notably, claims that rather than global climate change being the reason for the fires, an “arson emergency” in which fires were set by mysterious leftist agitators was to blame. Now, people living on the West Coast appear to be enduring a similar plague.