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Shawn Vestal: Falsehoods spread right along with the fires, from people who should know better

Oregon State Police and an Oregon Department of Transportation official confer at a roadblock at the McKenzie Fire District Station in Leaburg, Ore. There are unfounded rumors circulating on social media that antifa is starting wildfires.  (Andy Nelson)
Oregon State Police and an Oregon Department of Transportation official confer at a roadblock at the McKenzie Fire District Station in Leaburg, Ore. There are unfounded rumors circulating on social media that antifa is starting wildfires. (Andy Nelson)

It is a sign of the terrible times that even as the wildfires screamed across the West, another blaze was burning – a conflagration of conspiracies.

Public officials around the West were begging people to stop peddling the false, Facebook-fueled antifa-panic narrative claiming that leftist anarchists had set the Western wildfires. Such claims spread far and wide, prompting some people to establish their own rural vigilante checkpoints and prepare to repel imaginary looters, mostly in Oregon; three separate journalists covering the fires were confronted at gunpoint by people who called themselves forth to protect their community against approaching hordes.

The sheriff’s department in Douglas County, Oregon, issued a statement begging people to stop spreading the false story that it had arrested six antifa arsonists. Officials in Oregon’s Clackamas County, Mason County, and the cities of Springfield and Ashland issued similar denials, as did the FBI. So did the Pierce County firefighters union, the Oregon Department of Forestry … the list goes on.

“This is a made up graphic and story,” the Medford, Oregon, Police Department said in a statement responding to a specific conspiracy. “We did not arrest this person for arson, nor anyone affiliated with Antifa or ‘Proud Boys’ as we’ve heard throughout the day.”

The Proud Boys are a right-wing group that is in regular conflct with antifa in Portland and “whose disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions,” in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It turned out there were six arsons among the causes of wildfires in Oregon, and four of them were very small, but none – so far – have been associated with any political motive, according to the Oregonian. One man with an extensive criminal history set a fire after threatening to do so because of a breakup. Another involved a man with seeming mental illness who was apparently angry that a fire official wouldn’t give him a ride.

The antifa arsonist tale was just one more of the seemingly daily examples of a baseless social media storm – a collision of the intentionally false and the gullibly shared – roaring its way into real life. From the pandemic to the protests to Portland, online conspiracies and the distressingly large number of people suckered by them are infecting public life, thanks in large part to the strenuously dishonest and conspiracy-friendly White House.

COVID hoaxes proliferate. Lies about masks are shared repeatedly. Scares involving antifa flood the web. The vast and idiotic QAnon conspiracy, involving deep-state pedophilia and Trump as a savior, has gained an incredible foothold online, largely by preying on people’s concern about human trafficking – a real problem that conspiracists exaggerate to an ludicrous degree.

These falsehoods are swallowed and shared, increasingly, by politicians of the new, alt-reality right who are bringing the wildest paranoid falsehoods to the public square to share space with facts, science, journalism and observable truth, and helping to legitimize them.

Let me tell you the result via a parable: A relative shared a conspiracy video on – what else? – Facebook, complete with an auto-tuned voice and absolutely no source for its claims, asserting the coronavirus is a man-made illness set loose among us as a globalist plot to steal our freedom. Just typing it out makes me feel silly. I proposed checking with some more reliable sources of information that countered the video from major news outlets and fact-checkers.

Her answer was a shrug: Things are so crazy, who can even tell what’s true?

When we can’t tell the difference between fact and fantasy, it’s a disaster for democracy. The long-term health of the nation requires informed citizens and a factual debate around shared reality to actually work, and too many of us have left that reality.

Ironically, some of this disaster, which so beleaguered law enforcement officials during the wildfires, comes from law enforcement officials themselves. Among those spreading the conspiracy in Oregon were two police officials – both of whom were disciplined for sharing false information – as well as a couple of politicians on the far right.

But these stories didn’t start with the fires. Remember the rolling busloads of antifa killers that were supposedly prowling the rural countryside in the initial days of the George Floyd protests? The ones that prompted armed yahoos to turn out in force in Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint to glower at teenagers protesting for justice?

Repeatedly during the period of the antifa-bus tales, small-town police agencies – to say nothing of Spokane County’s sheriff – amplified information, seemingly gleaned uncritically from social media and including hoax material, that busloads of leftists were coming to Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, Missoula …

In an excellent deep dive into the phenomenon of Boogaloo Bois and the flourishing of viral conspiracies in the New York Times Magazine, Leah Sottile – a former reporter at the Inlander who has become one of the leading journalists on Western extremism – examined the way that, in the case of the “antifa busloads” panic and similar viral explosions, the Trump White House and right-wing media, combined with social media rumors, have combined to create an “absurd caricature, on cable news and in the minds of Republican politicians, of (antifa as) a well-funded nationwide organization of combatants.”

As she noted, at every step along the way, the antifa-busloads theory was boosted online by local officials. Some of them were just falling for nonsense. But some of them, especially with law enforcement ties, may also have been acting on a certainty that came to them from federal law enforcement agencies – who were themselves sometimes responding to unreliable social media posts.

Using information gleaned from the BlueLeaks trove of police records, Jason Wilson of the Guardian reported recently that warnings about “leftwing activists and coordinated arson attacks has been asserted relentlessly, with scant evidence, in a stream of intelligence reports.”

In one example, federal agencies issued several warnings last spring about an “International Sabotage Day” purportedly linked to planned destruction of 5G cellular towers, based on conspiratorial beliefs about 5G being a method of spreading the coronavirus. The warnings cited “multiple” social media posts. The Guardian searched for such posts and found … one: A Spanish Facebook page with 2,000 members.

International Sabotage Day came and went last spring without a coordinated pattern of international sabotage. But the warnings about a planned, coordinated leftist arson threat continued, the Guardian reported.

In another case, police officials spread warnings of a planned arson threat from Pennsylvania based on a social media post that was found to be false – but the warnings, couched in certainty about the looming threat of left-wing arson, continued.

In these cases, it seems, intelligence agencies acted on bits of inflammatory online information – a realm replete with falsehood, mistakes and hoaxes – and spread their resulting assumptions to police chiefs and sheriffs around the country, complete with the imprimatur of the federal government.

It is a sad irony of the information age that falsehood is this ascendant and truth is on the ropes. It is a sad product of our politics that an increasing number of people who hold positions of public responsibility – from the very top down – are gullible or cynical enough to help spread inflammatory conspiracies.

It is a sad inevitability that people who are told, over and over, that they must arm themselves and rush to the border to fight off incoming hordes of evil, child-molesting, leftist arsonists will do just that.

And they’ll have no actual idea who they’re pointing their guns at when they do.

Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or by email at shawnv@spokesman.com

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