As the world battles wildfires, conspiracy theories wrongly but consistently blame the left for starting the blazes.
In the space of a year, Brazil, Australia, and now the U.S. have witnessed catastrophic wildfires. Ruinous burn seasons are poised to get even worse if climate change continues unchecked. Meanwhile, a crisis of truthfulness—which the United Nations termed this year an “infodemic”—has seen conspiracy theorists build massive networks online.
The result is a frequently right-leaning disinformation economy that can disseminate hoaxes faster than authorities can debunk them. And in massive wildfires across three continents, that meant falsely blaming the leftie boogeymen of the moment—not climate change—for the flames.
Fires have engulfed the west coast of the U.S. in recent weeks, first in California and now in parts of Oregon and Washington. But officials had to battle more than the blazes. In Oregon, where more than 500,000 people are under evacuation orders, law enforcement took to social media on Thursday to implore people to stop sharing hoaxes about the fires’ origins.
Those rumors sprang up in a heated political climate, in which President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused antifa, the decentralized anti-fascist movement, of unspecified destructive plots. As fires broke out across the state, social media users, like failed Oregon congressional candidate Paul Romero Jr., issued completely false statements.
“Douglas County Sheriff has 6 ANTIFA arsonists in custody,” Romero tweeted on Wednesday. “Many fires in Oregon. Obviously there are more to track down and arrest. Governor Kate Brown built this.”
The post was later linked to the anonymous internet personality “Q,” who is the figurehead of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, which falsely accuses President Donald Trump’s foes of Satanic pedophilia and cannibalism. The conspiracy theory had at least 3 million followers in Facebook groups as of this summer, according to an internal Facebook report, and recently enjoyed a tacit embrace in the White House, courtesy of the president of the United States himself.
Other sources also baselessly promoted hoaxes about anti-fascists starting the fires. The publication Law Enforcement Today, which bills itself as the largest law enforcement news source, published an article promoting the conspiracy theory, and quickly racked up tens of thousands of social media shares, according to the Guardian.
Nevermind that even real law enforcement said the claims were bogus. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, which Romero claimed had arrested anti-fascists, debunked the rumor publicly.
"Rumors spread just like wildfire," they wrote on Facebook, "and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON."
Some of the antifa rumors, like a popular Twitter thread by a representative for the right-wing group Turning Point USA, explicitly denied that the fires were the result of climate change. Elsewhere across the conspiracy space, truthers have been skeptical of climate science, with chemtrails believers targeting underage climate activists with hoaxes and Flat Earthers suggesting rising temperatures to be the result of Hell moving closer to the planet’s surface.
Despite their debunking by law enforcement, the antifa rumors resulted in multiple potentially life-threatening situations. Several independent journalists reported that, when they traveled to document the fires, people tagged them as anti-fascist arsonists, and variously called 911 on them or threatened on social media to shoot them. One group of Portland-based journalists said they were stopped on the road by an armed militia, which had self-deputized and set up a checkpoint. One of the journalists said three men pointed guns at them, and that she suspected the men bought into the antifa-fire hoax.
One might be forgiven for thinking it was just another uniquely American moment of delusion in a year defined by death, destruction, and lies. But it’s not.
In Australia, where disastrous fires early this year gave the U.S. a preview of the west coast’s current red skies, wildfire misinformation was endemic. Some of it was steeped in climate-denialism, the Guardian noted. Years of fear-mongering about climate protections leading to the loss of working-class jobs had left some communities primed to view the environmentalist left as a villain. They accused the Green Party, a left-leaning party with relatively little electoral power, of causing the fires by campaigning against back burning, a practice of starting controlled fires to reduce the damage of large wildfires. (Fire officials debunked those rumors, and the Green Party actually supported controlled fires, which remain legal.)
Other Australian conspiracy theories were even more ludicrous, and spread via some of the same vectors as right-wing scaremongering the U.S. One theory, promoted in the U.S. by Donald Trump Jr. and Fox New host Sean Hannity, falsely claimed that nearly 200 people had been arrested for intentionally starting the fires. Although these claims suggested a nefarious plot, which dovetailed with other accusations against the leftist Greens, the truth was that almost all the arrested people were not accused of arson, but of violating anti-fire measures like discarding lit cigarettes or hosting unsafe barbeques, HuffPost reported.
And when fires overtook Brazil’s Amazon rainforest last summer, the country’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro falsely accused environmentalist groups of lighting the sparks. “On the question of burning in the Amazon, which in my opinion may have been initiated by NGOs because they lost money, what is the intention? To bring problems to Brazil,” Bolsonaro said, according to Vice News.
Bolsonaro accused those environmentalist groups of trying to “call attention against” him and the government, presumably over his famously anti-environmentalist stance. Under Bolsonaro, who has been personally fined for environmental infractions, Brazil has taken a chainsaw to its forests, the largest in the world, and opened those sanctuaries up for commercial enterprises. Some of the Amazon fires were the direct result of deforestation efforts, with farmers setting deliberate blazes to clear the land.
Call it projection. While the right blames the left for the blazes, many of the targeted activists and environmentalists have spent years warning of climate catastrophe. And while Bolsonaro, like Trump, has expressed skepticism or outright denial of climate change, virtually every expert on the subject says the warming planet is fueling the blazes.
As her state sent evacuation orders to some 10 percent of its population on Thursday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the fires had become a worldwide problem.
“We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state.” she said in a press conference: “We are feeling the acute impacts of climate change. We are seeing its acute impacts in Oregon, on the West Coast, and frankly in the entire world.”