The FBI stepped in to back up local law enforcement trying to tamp down a mis/disinformation campaign claiming that Antifa members set wildfires that are burning in multiple parts of Oregon south of Portland.
Tweets claiming that multiple Antifa members had been arrested this week for setting wildfires have racked up thousands of retweets, and in some rural areas armed groups of civilians were manning makeshift checkpoints or confronted journalists to expel them from the area. The New York Times quoted residents as saying they weren’t evacuating because they heard “Antifa’s in town.”
Frustrated law enforcement agencies took to social media to dispel the rumors and plead with the public to stop tying up their valuable resources and making first responders’ jobs more difficult with false reports as the fires continue to spread.
“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,” the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook. “THIS IS NOT TRUE! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.”
“Do your part, STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS! Follow official sources of information such as local emergency response websites and pages, government websites and pages and local reputable news outlets,” the department added.
Medford Police posted a fake news story that contained a person’s mugshot and claimed that five Proud Boys had been arrested for arson. “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,” the department said. “Please flag or ignore this post if you see it.”
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office wrote on its Facebook page Thursday that an “increasingly problematic issue related to the disastrous fires in Jackson County is the spreading of false information.”
“There are numerous FALSE reports of arrests and other situations over the past days that are the content of postings, fake stories and gossip. When you see or hear a story please check official sources only to verify the information. Please don’t re-post and spread misinformation based on some unverified random post or meme. Rumors make the job of protecting the community more difficult,” the department said.
“We are inundated with questions about things that are FAKE stories. One example is a story circulating that varies about what group is involved as to setting fires and arrests being made,” the post continued. “THIS IS NOT TRUE! When official information about the investigation is available it will be on reputable government, fire and law enforcement internet sites and social media pages. Do your part, verify information you hear through official sources and DON’T spread rumors.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon, who heads the Portland Field Office, issued a statement today acknowledging that “FBI Portland and local law enforcement agencies have been receiving reports that extremists are responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon.”
“With our state and local partners, the FBI has investigated several such reports and found them to be untrue,” Cannon said. “Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control.”
Molalla Police Chief Frank Schoenfeld added a Q&A to his department’s Facebook page in an effort to extinguish the rumors: “Are there looters in Molalla? No incidents of looting have been confirmed. … Is Antifa or other individuals intentionally setting fires/cutting power/etc within the City limits of Molalla? There have been NO Incidents confirmed or suspected in Molalla City limits.”
Schoenfeld also had to address a rumor that police had abandoned the city. “At no time did the Molalla Police Department abandon the city,” he wrote. “In fact, we have used resources from multiple outside law enforcement agencies here to assist us with the emergency evacuations.”
Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said a criminal investigation is being conducted into the origin of the Almeda Fire, but “in no way does it point towards any political group, including anybody associated with Antifa,” he told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Any rumors suggesting that it is pointed toward Antifa are entirely fabricated.”