Wildfires Spread In Oregon, California As Conspiracy Theories Blame Antifa : Consider This from NPR Wildfires in Western states aren't slowing down and conspiracy theories about who started them are only making things harder for responders.

Conrad Wilson from Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on how claims of Antifa arsonists have clogged up the phone lines for 911 dispatchers in some Oregon towns.

And NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Nick Clegg, Facebook's Vice President of Global Affairs and Communication, about the company's decision to remove some misinformation about the fires — and their broader attempts to stop the spread of misinformation online.

Find and support your local public radio station.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org
NPR logo

Conspiracies Add Fuel To An Already Challenging Wildfire Season

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/911869370/913285083" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Conspiracies Add Fuel To An Already Challenging Wildfire Season

Conspiracies Add Fuel To An Already Challenging Wildfire Season

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/911869370/913285083" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sue McAlister and Michael Palmer are only a few months into their retirement. In June they moved from Oklahoma to the small mountain community of Blue River, Ore., onto the property where McAllister grew up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUE MCALLISTER: My family's had this property for several generations. My great-grandfather bought it in the early 1900s.

CORNISH: A few nights ago, just after McAlister and her husband went to bed, their phones lit up with a level three evacuation warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL PALMER: Which is immediate. Leave now. Do not gather your belongings.

CORNISH: They grabbed a few important documents, their three cats and headed for the door. And there was this moment where he hoped the warning was some kind of error.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PALMER: And I started looking around, and the fire had already jumped on our property. Basically, the embers were flying miles.

MCALLISTER: The trees were torching up as tall as - you know, they're 100-and-some feet tall, and they were torching - I mean, flying flames everywhere. It was really scary.

CORNISH: Not long after they escaped, a neighbor sent them a photo of their property.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PALMER: There is nothing remaining except for a brick chimney.

CORNISH: Michael Palmer and Sue McAllister - they recalled their escape to my colleague Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: The wildfires spreading through Oregon aren't slowing down. And if that wasn't enough, rumors have sprung up about the origins of the fires - rumors that play on the tension between far-left and far-right groups in Oregon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PALMER: We're right in that border zone where we have some people of each leaning. I'm curious how much of this is active disinformation.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - wildfires are swallowing up towns in Western states, and conspiracy theories are making it harder to fight them. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Tuesday, Sept. 15.

It's CONSIDER THIS. I'm Audie Cornish. So, in typical 2020 fashion, first comes the disaster. Then come the conspiracy theories.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE STORY WITH DAN HAGGERTY")

DAN HAGGERTY: Well, the rumor mill is working overtime on the interwebs (ph) today.

CORNISH: With the wildfires, it's conspiracies about arson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE STORY WITH DAN HAGGERTY")

HAGGERTY: Loads of people insisting without really any evidence at all that insert boogeyman of your choice is intentionally starting these fires, like antifa or the Proud Boys. And they're not, all right? Let's just say that right off the bat.

CORNISH: The Portland TV station KGWA shared a video posted by firefighter T.J. Hiner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TJ HINER: I've had my fill of you guys trying to make my life your conspiracy theory.

CORNISH: Heiner has been fighting fires for the past 25 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HINER: You are a part of the problem if you're sharing conspiracy theories. You are part of the problem if you're making my job be your politics. You are part of the problem if you're not standing up for me while I am doing my best to save towns.

CORNISH: Conrad Wilson from Oregon Public Broadcasting has been reporting on these false conspiracy theories and the real challenge they pose to the people fighting the wildfires. He spoke with my colleague Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHEL MARTIN: So, first of all, what do fire officials say about how these fires actually started?

CONRAD WILSON: Well, there are a number of factors. But the big one, fire officials say, is this massive and extremely unusual windstorm that happened on Labor Day. It came in at very dry conditions across Oregon. In some cases, that windstorm downed power lines, which started fires. Fire officials here say some of the fires are human-caused, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're intentional. And others are arson and are being investigated criminally. Many other fires are being investigated, and the causes are not known.

MARTIN: Can you tell us about these conspiracy theories? And do you have any idea who is starting them and spreading them?

WILSON: So there's a sense online among some that there are just too many fires for this to be a coincidence. Many without evidence are saying that they're being caused by antifa. The Republican candidate for Oregon attorney general posted on Facebook this week that the fires were clearly arson, constituted domestic terrorism and stated that he heard of 14 people involved in starting fires. I called him and pressed him repeatedly, and he couldn't provide evidence.

And then later in the week, a sheriff's deputy in Clackamas County, Ore., was seen in a video posted online claiming antifascist activists have been starting fires in the area. On the video, he said antifa, quote, "are out causing hell, and there's a lot of lives at stake. And there's a lot of people's property at stake because these guys got some vendetta." Now, after that video was posted, the Clackamas County sheriff apologized and placed the deputy on administrative leave.

MARTIN: Is law enforcement doing anything else about this?

WILSON: Well, officials all the way from the FBI to a small-town police chief has said the rumors about antifa having anything to do with these wildfires are completely false. There is just no evidence. And, in fact, law enforcement say the rumors are taking away resources. One county here said that their 911 dispatchers were overwhelmed with calls about an apparent arrest of several antifa members in connection with a fire. On Facebook, the Douglas County Sheriff's Office said in all caps, this is not true. Please share this widely.

You know, law enforcement investigating the devastating Alameda Fire in Southern Oregon have stressed over and over again that there is no connection to antifa or any other political group.

I spoke with Ashland police Chief Tighe O'Meara this week, and here's what he told me.

TIGHE O'MEARA: That investigation is criminal, and it is ongoing. And in no way does it point toward any political group, including anybody associated with antifa. And any rumors suggesting that it is pointing toward antifa are entirely fabricated.

MARTIN: Well, just briefly, Conrad, I understand that Facebook has removed some posts linking Oregon wildfires to activist groups. But are these bizarre - are these false rumors penetrating? I mean, how are people dealing with all that?

WILSON: Oh, people here are totally freaked out, I mean, especially in areas hit hardest by the fires, where there's an imminent threat of fire. One of my colleagues at OPB was out reporting in Molalla, Ore., and was confronted by an armed person who told my colleague he had to leave immediately. So I think it just shows how dangerous some of these rumors on Facebook can be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Conrad Wilson of OPB talking to NPR's Michel Martin.

As Michel mentioned, Facebook did take down some of those inaccurate Facebook posts about the fires. Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs and communications, said the company took action because local officials told them the conspiracy theories were taking resources away from the rescue effort.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICK CLEGG: So that's a clear example where we felt that by removing that content, we were also diminishing the real-world harm that could follow.

CORNISH: Clegg says Facebook will take down posts if they create a clear risk for impending real-world harm. But the conspiracy theories aren't the only misinformation popping up around wildfires. For instance, Monday at a meeting between California state officials and President Trump, the state secretary for natural resources, Wade Crowfoot, told the president any strategy for fighting fires had to acknowledge the reality of climate change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WADE CROWFOOT: If we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it's all about vegetation management, we're not going to succeed together protecting Californians.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: OK. It'll start getting cooler.

CROWFOOT: I wish...

TRUMP: You just watch.

CROWFOOT: I wish science agreed with you.

TRUMP: Well, I don't think science knows, actually.

CORNISH: OK. That's not true. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that without major reductions in carbon emissions, temperatures will continue to rise, and severe wildfire seasons like this one will become more common.

So what does Facebook do about false information coming from the president of the United States? I asked Facebook's Nick Clegg about this. He's doing interviews to promote Facebook's new Climate Science Information Center, which gathers reliable climate science news in one place, and its fact-checking system, which labels posts with inaccurate information. I asked Clegg about that Trump clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLEGG: So the fact-checkers do not fact-check the actual words that come from politicians directly for the simple reason that political speech is a highly scrutinized, commented on, analyzed, satirized form of speech. And political speech has always been full of sort of caricature, selective use of facts and so on. So fact-checkers are entirely free - notwithstanding that rule, they're entirely free to apply fact checks as they do to what is said about climate science or, indeed, climate misinformation and...

CORNISH: So help us understand. How is any of this useful? You're doing this Climate Science Information Center. But in the meantime, this issue is politicized, at least in this country. And in this case, we have a pretty obvious example of the president saying something that goes against the science. Where does that leave Facebook?

CLEGG: Well, forgive me. Facebook's role is not to tell whoever is elected as president of the United States what they can and can't say, within limits. No one, including President Trump, and no politician can say things which threaten impending real-world harm, and our policies on hate speech apply to everybody.

But when it comes to the debate about climate science, what we are trying to do and why we are hopeful this Climate Science Information Center will be very effective is that it provides a simple, easy-to-find repository for authoritative information about what is happening to our climate, how it's changing. If you look at the experience we've had in recent months of the COVID information hub - 2 billion people seeing that around the world, 600 million people double-clicking to find out even more information - that is a promising precedent.

CORNISH: We've seen you take action when it comes to COVID, now climate change. There's a long-running debate about how Facebook handles political misinformation. Does it feel like Facebook has a grasp or the capacity to handle managing these discussions at this scale?

CLEGG: Well, if you consider some of the announcements we made just 10 days ago or so about additional guardrails we put in place for the U.S. elections, such as not running new political ads on our platforms for the last week, labeling any premature claims by any of the candidates that they have won the election before the certified results are finalized, removing content that claims that if you vote, you're going to get COVID, expanding our voter suppression policies - these and many other steps are unprecedented steps because, yes, these are unprecedented times.

I don't think - in answer to your question, I don't think one ever sort of stops in this process. I don't think there's ever a sort of resting place because politics and how it's conducted and, crucially, how it's conducted online mutates all the time. But we are, in my view - if you look at our actions, not just our words, we are constantly improving and iterating on how we put guardrails in place to safeguard that space for open debate but at the same time to put guardrails in place that it - that takes place within certain limits.

CORNISH: That was Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs and communications. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.