Authorities in Oregon are pleading with the public to only trust and share information verified by official sources about the unprecedented wildfires sweeping the state. The pleas come as law enforcement agencies described 911 dispatchers being overrun with calls about a false online rumor that “Antifa” members had been arrested for setting the fires — a claim promoted by the anonymous account behind the QAnon conspiracy theories.
The incident highlights how online conspiracy theories, a sustained right-wing campaign to create increased fear of anti-fascist groups, and amplification of false claims by QAnon followers, have real consequences.
On Friday, the FBI responded, saying, “reports that extremists are setting wildfires in Oregon are untrue.”
“Rumors spread just like wildfire,” the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office warned in a Facebook post Thursday, adding that staff had been “overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires” in the area.
That specific claim had been amplified by “Q” — the anonymous person or people behind QAnon — only 12 hours earlier.
Early Thursday morning, “Q” posted a link to a tweet from Paul Joseph Romero Jr., a former US Senate candidate who lost his Republican primary in May, that falsely claimed the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office had six Antifa “arsonists” in custody.
Speaking to CNN Saturday, Romero claimed, “My original tweet is not 100% accurate, there is no question about that, but it is mostly accurate,” and said he wanted to draw people’s attention to his belief that arsonists are responsible for a lot of the fires.
He said he does not plan to remove the false tweet.
He said he is not a QAnon follower but has seen some of Q’s posts and said, “I don’t think you can discount [Q] more than you can discount anybody.”
The post by “Q” was published on 8Kun, a successor to the messaging board 8chan, where users often posted hateful content. In 2019, 8chan was linked to at least three atrocities, including a shooting in El Paso, Texas, that left 23 people dead.
In the post that included Romero’s tweet, “Q” suggested the fires were linked to “highly coordinated … domestic terrorism.” President Donald Trump threatened earlier this year to label Antifa a terrorist organization, a move that experts say is unconstitutional.
The wildfires sweeping the state have burned around 900,000 acres since they were first sparked amid fierce winds this week, forcing the evacuation of half a million people, Oregon officials said Thursday. At least eight people have died in wildfires in Oregon.
An anonymous post to an obscure online site wouldn’t normally merit much attention, but QAnon followers are fervent and persistent, and the FBI has labeled them a potential domestic terrorist threat.
QAnon’s followers believe there is a “deep state” within the US government that is controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles. According to the baseless conspiracy theory, the cabal is largely run by Democratic politicians and liberal celebrities – and Trump is trying to take them down.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon also took to Facebook on Thursday asking people not to spread false information.
“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,” they wrote, adding, “THIS IS NOT TRUE!”
On Friday, the FBI’s Portland field office tweeted, “With our state and local partners, the FBI has investigated several such reports [of extremists setting wildfires] and found them untrue.”
“Conspiracy theory and misinformation take valuable resources away from local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control,” it added.
And police in the city of Medford said screenshots of what purported to be a Facebook post from the police department’s account were fake. In the screenshot, a post showed a man’s picture and claimed five people were arrested in connection with arson.
“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,” police wrote.
Medford police told CNN it requested the fake posts be removed from other Facebook accounts and posted a notice on its own page about the bogus claims, but “we are still getting calls, from local and out of the area, asking if it’s true.”
Proud Boys is a far-right group.
In the anonymous online posting, “Q” also shared a link to a post from a Washington State trooper who said a 36-year-old male had been arrested for setting a fire. Authorities in Washington, however, gave no indication that the alleged arson was politically motivated. CNN has reached out for comment.
Craig Roberts, Clackamas County Sheriff, was asked about the possibility of arson in Oregon. He said, “At this point in time we don’t have any evidence of that [arson] but the origin of those things will be part of an investigation as things move forward. So, as you can imagine a fire to this magnitude, there’ll be an in-depth investigation looking at all the possibilities and anything that might come forward, regarding that. But at this particular point in time nothing conclusive that would direct us to that any of that.”