Deadly wildfires are destroying homes and killing people in Oregon, but some homeowners have decided to risk the flames in order to stand guard against imaginary Antifa anarchists rumoured to be invading the state.
There is absolutely no evidence of Antifa provocateurs at work in Oregon, and any reports about them are falsehoods or misinformation, according to the FBI and several county sheriff’s offices.
Nevertheless, misinformation spread through Facebook has prompted many people to risk their own lives in order to fight a phantom menace, even in the face of a real threat. Facebook itself has pledged to take down the rumours, but they’ve already taken hold in several counties across Oregon.
A handful of sheriff’s deputies have also made the problem worse by publicly spreading the rumours. In Clackamas County, for example, Capt. Jeff Smith repeated some of the Antifa rumours during a county meeting about imposing a curfew last week. Smith described “reliable sightings and reports, not confirmed,” of potential Antifa agents cutting down telephone poles with chainsaws, and setting out gas cans “in hopes of starting further fires.”
Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said there was no evidence to support Smith’s claims on Monday.
“I want to clarify for the record that one of our captains indicated a source stating Antifa was involved in possible criminal activity,” Roberts told reporters. “That source has since determined to be false.”
He also warned that armed citizens are illegally setting up roadblocks to check for the rumoured looters.
A Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy has also been placed on leave after blaming Antifa for the wildfires in a video that went viral last week.
The Medford Police Department also highlighted a fake story claiming that it had “arrested” someone on Sept. 9.
“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 police department wrote on Facebook. “This is a made up graphic and story.”
Some arson arrests have been made but there is no evidence of a plot to spread fires in Oregon or neighbouring Washington and California, which are also facing historic wildfires.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office urged people to stop spreading rumours last week, after fielding a flurry of calls from people asking about Antifa arsonists.
“Rumors spread just like wildfire,” the sheriff’s office wrote on Facebook last Thursday. The sheriff’s office says its 911 dispatchers were being “overrun” by questions about an “UNTRUE rumor” involving Antifa.
“Rumors make this already difficult event harder,” the sheriff’s office said. “STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS! Follow official sources of information.”
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office issued a similar plea that same day, citing the same fake story that Antifa members had been arrested for setting fires.
“We are inundated with questions about things that are FAKE stories,” the sheriff’s office wrote. “Please don’t repost and spread misinformation based on some unverified random post or meme.”
Several locals in Molalla, Ore., have posted warning signs and holed up inside their homes to defend themselves against the rumoured looters, the New York Times reports.
“There’s already reports that Antifa’s in town, going down the streets looting,” resident Ralph Mitchell told the Times last week. “I’m getting texts.”
“I’m protecting my city,” said Troy McNeeley, another local who defied an evacuation order to stay behind. “If I see people doing crap, I’m going to hurt them.”
Others have been seen standing guard in Estacada, Ore., amid similar unfounded rumours.
The FBI said on Friday that it’s looked into the Antifa reports and it “found them to be untrue.”
“Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away (from) local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control,” special agent in charge Loren Cannon said in a statement.
Antifa is a far-left movement of political activists, including some who advocate extreme measures against fascism. It’s not an organized group with a defined leadership structure or the ability to send strike teams into areas, based on all available evidence.
Nevertheless, Antifa has become a sort-of viral boogeyman in recent months as the basis for several unfounded rumours about anarchist invaders.
U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to repeat one such rumour last month when he claimed without evidence that a plane full of Antifa “thugs” dressed like ninjas were being flown somewhere to cause trouble.
His story echoed one that circulated earlier in the summer when armed far-right groups were duped into standing guard against alleged Antifa “invaders” during Black Lives Matter protests. One such incident took place in Klamath Falls, Ore., on May 31.
Portland, Ore., has been the site of ongoing protests against racism and police brutality in recent months. The city has also seen violent encounters between far-right and far-left groups.
Last month, a professed Antifa supporter shot a Trump supporter who was part of a far-right caravan driving through the city. Police killed the Antifa supporter in Washington a week later.
Wildfires have choked the skies with ash and torched vast stretches of land across Oregon, Washington and California in recent weeks. At least 10 people have been killed in Oregon during the blazes, officials say.
The fires have also wiped out several small towns and forced thousands of people to flee.
—With files from The Associated Press