Seattle – Raging forest fires in the Pacific Northwest sparked a series of misinformation this week as unfounded social media posts blamed coordinated groups of far-left and far-right arsonists for the arson.
Officials turned to Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday to crush competing stories – some publications blamed far-left antifa activists, while others said the far-right Proud Boys group was responsible for fires that engulfed parts of Oregon and Washington.
“Remember when we said to follow only official sources,” the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon said. “Do you remember when we said that rumors make this already difficult incident even more difficult?”
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As the fires severely damaged small towns in Oregon, Phoenix and Talent, the Medford Police Department posted on Facebook that officers had not arrested anyone associated with the Proud Boys or the Antifa, an acronym for Antifascists, a number of far-left militant groups that oppose the white tops.
Police in Medford also debunked a fake graphic circulating online that used the department’s logo and a photo from an unrelated arrest in 2018 to claim that five proud boys had been arrested for arson.
It is not yet clear how the fires started, but officials said strong winds and dry conditions were exacerbating them in a region whose cool, humid climate protected it from intense firefighting. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the state could see the biggest loss of life and property from wildfires in its history.
Far-left and far-right groups clashed during protests in the Northwest, especially in Portland, Oregon, where a caravan of supporters of President Donald Trump pickuped through the liberal city last month. An antifa supporter shot dead a member of a right-wing group and was fatally shot by Washington authorities a week later.
A social media post on Thursday contained a photo of a woman, along with allegations that she tried to light a fire near a high school in Springfield, Oregon. Springfield police told the Associated Press that they spoke to the woman on Wednesday and that this is not true.
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Another post claims that a landowner called police after arsonists threw Molotov cocktails at his land in Klakamas County and they started a shootout. The Klakamas County Sheriff’s Office told the AP that such reports did not exist.
Thousands of Twitter and Facebook users have shared posts trying to link the fires to antifa activists, including Paul Romero, a former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Oregon.
Reached over the phone, Romero blamed the escalation of fires across the country by a coordinated “army of arsonists,” but offered no evidence to support the claim.
Police are investigating a fire that broke out in Ashland, Oregon, as a potential arson after finding human remains, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler told reporters on Wednesday.
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Ashland Deputy Police Chief Art LeCourt confirmed to the AP that the case had “no connection with the antifa”.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office has launched an investigation into the fires, but no arrests have been made and there is no evidence of a coordinated effort so far, spokesman Mike Moran said.
“These investigations are time consuming,” he said. “They are intense. They move fast. So people need to think, “Does this make any sense at all?” They need to question everything they see in the social media environment. “