Rumors find fertile ground in Oregon, a state already divided after months of protests – and are complicating emergency responses
Photojournalist Nathan Howard was on assignment for a picture agency south-east of the fire-menaced foothill town of Estacada, Oregon, on Thursday afternoon when a man angrily approached him on a rural roadside.
The man insisted the photographer was a looter, Howard said, and despite his repeated attempts to identify himself as a journalist, the man began yelling and became so agitated that “it was like his eyes were popping out of his head”. The man eventually allowed Howard to get in his car and leave, but gave chase as Howard drove north.
Then a second truck approached from the opposite direction, Howard said, and parked horizontally across the highway, blocking both lanes. A man climbed from the truck and pointed a loaded assault rifle at Howard through his car’s windshield, and again accused him of looting, his finger on the trigger.
“He was saying, ‘you’re a looter, you have to get out of here’”, Howard said in a telephone conversation, “and I was like, ‘you’re blocking the road, I can’t move’, and that conversation went on for three solid minutes.”
Thursday’s highway standoff highlights the real life consequences of the wave of disinformation on social media about the cause of wildfires raging across the Pacific north-west. Many of the rumors baselessly claim that the fires were lit by political activists, either by the far-right group the Proud Boys or the leftist activists known as antifa.
Although there have been arrests for alleged arson amid the fires, authorities have vehemently denied political motivations. The majority of fires across Oregon and the west appear to have been sparked by power lines and other ignitions, and have exploded amid dry, hot and windy weather conditions in a landscape primed for fire because of drought.
Officials in Oregon have turned to Facebook to knock down the competing narratives, and the FBI has said it has investigated several claims and found them to be untrue. But the rumors have found fertile ground in a state already divided after months of protests. They are complicating the emergency response, including by motivating armed patrols in towns gripped by rumors of antifa arson attacks, and inspiring vigilante acts like the incident with Howard.
On the source of his assailants’ behavior, Howard said, “it has to be Facebook”, noting that in his own monitoring of Estacada Facebook groups during his reporting in the area, he had noticed the same rumors of antifa looters and arsonists that are still firehosing through similar pages throughout the west.
Posts made this week inside an Oregon-based private Facebook groups, and viewed by the Guardian, are indicative of the way that these rumors are forming a nexus between local communities, sometimes-violent protest groups, and even elected officials in rural areas.
On Wednesday evening, in Curry News and Views, a private Facebook group associated with far south-western Curry county, two GOP-aligned elected officials appeared to promote disinformation.
Christopher Paasch, a Curry county commissioner, had previously spread a viral meme that baselessly claimed that seven antifa activists had been arrested for arson in Medford, and in a post to the group, a local Facebook user accused him of spreading an “unsubstantiated rumor”.
In comments on the post, Paasch first falsely denied that his original post “said they were antifa”, and then added a further post discussing an unrelated fire in Gold Beach, with the comment, “You think no one is lighting fires and trying to burn down towns and hurt people, wake up.”
Later, Oregon state representative David Brock Smith weighed in to defend Paasch, and the post, writing, “there are individuals out there hell bent on destruction. I’m not saying they’re associated with any group, but more information is coming to light by the hour”.
Paasch did not immediately respond to questions about who they thought was deliberately lighting fires, and for what purpose.
Smith responded to questions in an email, writing: “I was very clear in my comments; on a post from an individual who constantly vilifies individuals that do not agree with her, and stated multiple times that I am not associating arson activities to any group”, attaching screenshots and links to a series of unrelated arsons, or suspected arsons, in disparate areas of the state.
There were more concentrated streams of disinformation inside the private group for COPS NW, an organizing network that has recently promoted a series of pro-Trump, pro-police and anti-Black Lives Matter demonstrations around northwest Oregon that have at times culminated in violent confrontations with black lives matter protesters.
In past days, COPS NW has featured intense discussions on a series of false stories and rumors about antifa arsonists, including baseless claims that an activist had been arrested for lighting fires near Salem and another had been rammed while lighting fires in now-evacuated Beavercreek. The group also discussed a viral post that falsely claimed that the fires were a “coordinated and planned attack” and that an arsonist had been shot and killed by a property owner near Damascus.
The leader of COPS NW, Audra Price, has consistently said in public to have peaceful aims, but suggested after days in which such material had been circulating virtually unchallenged in the group that perhaps violence was necessary. “Maybe allowing Antifa to terrorize our cities for as long as they did, was the wrong choice for us to make. I sure hope our passivity didn’t contribute to what’s going on now. I won’t lie. I’m very torn about whether or not, my encouraging people to remain peaceful, was the right choice,” Price wrote.
On Friday, Price posted a message she said came from “an LEO in Clackamas”, using an abbreviation for law enforcement officers. The post pleaded with the group to stop circulating false information about the fires and echoed other pleas from first responders aimed at staunching the flow of false information.
“The false info spreading faster than the fire is hindering our efforts”, the message said. “NO Antifa have been arrested for arson in our area. This false info is making our jobs more difficult by having to check fictitious problems and deal with neighborhood militias that mean well, but are interfering with our efforts.”
Price prefaced the relayed text with a disclaimer: “I am just as confused by his message as all of you are and I told the officer that. I explained that I have a few people who I trust make the claim that CCSO and other LE told them it is antifa.”
Most commenters in the group flatly rejected the idea that they were believing and were spreading false information. One user said of alleged antifa arsonists, “So unless it’s tattooed on their forehead it’s not true??? I’ll judge for myself thank you.” Another remarked, “This is disappointing, especially when we know better. I feel like someone is running a large scale cover up from the top.”
In response to questions about disinformation in her group, and her apparent call for violence, Price wrote in a Facebook message, “I have no comment to you. You twist things and you lie. Why in the world, would I give you any answers?”
Just like earlier this year in Australia, when some mainstream outlets spurred along “claims of an arson emergency” during the bushfire emergency, the conspiracy theories in the US west have found their way to locally influential conservative broadcasters.
Kristopher Smith holds his dog Tripp outside his tent at an evacuation center at the Milwaukie-Portland Elks Lodge on Sunday, in Oak Grove, Oregon. Photograph: John Locher/AP
Lars Larson, who is based in Portland, but whose rightwing talk radio show is nationally syndicated, has received national attention in recent years after getting to ask questions at White House press briefings.
On Wednesday, near the top of the show, Larson introduced the topic of fires by remarking, “Like a lot of you I suspect … All of these fires within a 24-48 hour period makes me suspicious.”
On Thursday, Larson followed up by entertaining what he admitted was a conspiracy theory, telling his audience that “I want to suggest to you … that these may have been some kind of planned action.”
He then invited his audience to call in about “the suspicion that a lot of you have that the folks who have been setting fires in downtown Portland, and downtown Seattle, that they may be involved as well”, referring to leftist protesters.
An email sent to Larson’s producer on Thursday asking for specific evidence for antifa involvement in the fires, and the ethics of broadcasting rumors, went unanswered.
Facebook also did not respond to a request for comment about disinformation on the platform.
Howard managed to extricate himself from the standoff near Estacada after a third truck appeared; its driver asked him what he was doing, wished him good luck, and drove off. His captors then moved enough to allow him to drive on.
But he says that the climate of disinformation, a new suspicion of journalists, and the potential for violence have led to misgivings about returning to those parts of the state most in need of coverage, and an antidote to the false claims running the table on social media.
“Huge parts of the state are being destroyed by fire”, he said, “and we can’t document it because that’s exactly where conspiracy theories are running wild”.
Originally published: 2020-09-14 05:00:25