The latest right-wing “antifa” hoax—namely, the claim that leftist arsonists have been secretly behind the wildfires that have swept the West Coast this month—is now being broadcast to millions of people. It bubbled up from the fever swamps of the far right over the weekend, broadcast widely by key figures atop the media food chain: Donald Trump, Joe Rogan, Fox News, and leading Republican political candidates.
Trump retweeted an alt-right-flavored anti-Biden video suggesting he was ignoring antifa arsonists threatening the suburbs. Rogan, a wildly popular podcast host, told his audience that “left-wing people” were responsible for the fires (and apologized for it the next day). Fox News appeared especially eager to blame antifa for the wildfires as a way of denying the role of climate change. And in Washington state, where the fires have hit hard, the Republican nominee in the governor’s race joined in spreading the claims through a campaign video.
The hoax—which originated with far-right conspiracy theorists in the Pacific Northwest already on the warpath with antifascists—has been denounced by law-enforcement and firefighting officials throughout the West Coast, notably in the rural areas threatened most by the wildfires. Sheriffs in most of these areas have taken to the same social-media platforms (particularly Facebook) where the false rumors have spread to plead with their constituents to stop spreading false information.
Nonetheless, armed vigilantes in some of these rural areas have formed ad-hoc “citizen patrols” who have blocked roadways and interrogated drivers. In some areas threatened directly by the fires, some people have refused to follow evacuation orders, fearing their homes will be ransacked by antifa looters.
None of that seems to have deterred key players in the right-wing media ecosystem from amplifying the disinformation, particularly Trump. On Monday, Trump retweeted a video from a right-wing account featuring Biden’s speech calling Trump a “serial arsonist”, but satirically depicting antifa activists behind him, setting fires to grasslands with blowtorches and leaf blowers. The video currently has more than 960,000 views.
The video includes an oblique reference to the popular alt-right meme “Kek”—a satirical “religion” built around a frog-human demigod—in one of its chryons, which reads: “Trump: You mean 3rd term … Kek.”
The video ends with Biden’s voice being drowned out by “arsonist” sound effects, then finishes with a line from his speech: “Do you know what is actually threatening our suburbs?” At that point, an antifascist logo appears on the screen, followed by a message: “Just have to look it up, Mr Biden”.
Rogan, the über-popular podcaster with over 8 million YouTube subscribers who recently signed a megadeal with Spotify reportedly worth over $100 million, on Thursday spouted at length about the supposed antifa arsonists setting fires along the West Coast:
I actually love Portland. It’s one of my favorite places to perform. Most of the people there are very nice. But there’s a madness going on there. You want to talk about madness of crowds. That is—that exemplifies that right now. And it’s, to me, they’ve arrested people for lighting forest fires up there. They've arrested left-wing people for lighting these forest fires. You know, air quote, “activists.” And this is something that’s also not widely being reported. You know, that people have actually been arrested for lighting fires up there. This is—I don’t know what, like if I would love to talk to the mayor and say what is your strategy for ending this? Are you hoping this is just going to die down? Like because they—these people want your head and they want blood, and they don't seem to be willing to settle for anything less.
Rogan, however, promptly retracted the claim the next day and apologized on Twitter:
I fucked up on the podcast with Douglas Murray and said that people got arrested lighting fires in Portland. That turns out to not be true. I was very irresponsible not looking into it before I repeated it. I read one story about a guy getting arrested for lighting fires ... turned out to be true, but the other shit I read about people getting arrested for lighting fires in Portland was not true. I repeated it without looking into it and it was a really fucking stupid mistake that won’t happen again. I’m sorry.
Over at Fox News, the same claims proliferated over the weekend, but there were no subsequent retractions or apologies. First, the co-hosts for Fox and Friends Sunday held forth on the horrors of leftist arsonists supposedly victimizing the victims of the wildfires after a brief news report on the situation.
Cohost Will Cain leapt to a number of conclusions based on reports of arson arrests:
You know, I always want to be responsible about what it is we do not know yet. These arsonists—as of yet, we do not know exactly their ties to any extremist organizations or what their motivations might be. But I think one thing is clear—we now know many of these fires in the West were set intentionally. What does that reveal, Pete? What it reveals is the brazen political monopolization of a tragedy by people like Governor Gavin Newsom, who quickly jumped out and blamed these fires on climate change. There’s no tragedy, there’s no moment too soon, to jump and advance your political agenda and pin awful events on your political opponents. What this reveals, at the very least, without any information about their motives, is these were intentional fires, and Gavin Newsom attributed it to his political position.
Then on Monday, Fox host Laura Ingraham—in an interview with right-wing author Victor Davis Hanson—derided Biden’s jibes calling Trump a “serial arsonist” by playing the clip and suggesting that antifa were actually setting the fires:
Did Biden anywhere in that speech lay out his solution to prevent any wildfires in the future or the people who are intentionally setting them in California, including antifa?
Some Republican politicians have participated in spreading the rumor, most of them lower-tier ex-candidates. But Washington state’s Republican nominee for the governorship, Loren Culp—who has a long history of involvement with right-wing conspiracism, notably the far-right “constitutionalist” movement—got into the action as well.
As Chris d’Angelo at HuffPost reported, Culp visited with rural Washington residents who have been threatened by the fires in the central part of the state, and posted a video to his campaign website. In the conversation he has with two homeowners forced to evacuate, he told them: “I know statewide there’s about 600,000 acres that have burned. And a lot of them have apparently been set intentionally—like this one. A couple people have been caught so far. Hopefully they investigate the heck out of this.”
“It’s something bigger,” a man responds.
“To have that many fires set all over the state, it’s gotta be coordinated,” Culp concludes.
Law enforcement officials throughout the region have been adamant that, while there have been arson arrests for some of the fires, antifa or leftist activists have not been involved. In Oregon, one sheriff’s department posted a plea on Facebook: “Rumors spread just like wildfire 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]. THIS IS NOT TRUE! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.”
Special Agent In Charge Renn Cannon of Portland’s FBI field office, told Oregon Public Broadcasting there’s no basis for the conspiracy theories. “FBI Portland and local law enforcement agencies have been receiving reports that extremists are responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon,” Cannon said in a statement Friday. “With our state and local partners, the FBI has investigated several such reports and found them to be untrue. Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control.”
None of the arson arrests so far have any substantive connection to leftist politics, and some have no connection to the wildfires. A Puyallup man arrested for setting a fire next to State Highway 167 near Puyallup, Washington, was identified by the right-wing Post Millennial as a “BLM activist” who apparently attended marches. What their report failed to mention was that the fires he set were easily extinguished, and that the man was not connected to any other arsons, nor was there any evidence that he was acting in concert with other arsonists.
Similarly, two Clackamas County, Oregon, men arrested for arson this week had nothing to do with the wildfires, sheriff’s investigators said. And a man arrested for arson in Portland for setting fires alongside the Interstate 5 corridor also was not connected to either the wildfires or left-wing activists.
Climate Feedback fact-checked the claims and found that the larger majority of the wildfires were sparked by ordinary sources: lightning strikes, powerlines, camping and vehicle-muffler fires. (One fire in California—the El Dorado fire, which had burned 21,000 acres as of late this week, and in which a firefighter was killed Friday—was first sparked by a pyrotechnic device at a gender-reveal party.) Moreover, it noted that the extremely dry forest conditions that are the real fuel for all the fires—including those set by arsonists—are in fact due to climate change:
While steps to prevent ignitions are important when wildfire risk is high, it’s the dry conditions that make fires possible and determine their potential intensity, with subsequent weather conditions (such as winds) also playing an important role in wildfire behavior. Just as attempted arson would be unsuccessful in a wet forest, any type of ignition can lead to a large wildfire when fuels are extremely dry. Wildfire outbreaks don’t typically correlate with a specific ignition type (excepting lightning storms) but rather with weather conditions amidst drought.
Much of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington are currently in severe to extreme drought after a dry and warm summer. August, for example, was the warmest on record for California and the tenth warmest for Oregon. August in both states was among the 30 driest on record. Combined with recent unfavorable winds, these conditions are responsible for the severity of the current fires.
As BuzzFeed’s Julia Reinstein observes, the hoax rumors are “designed at discrediting climate change scientists and playing into President Trump’s message about a breakdown of law and order in Democratic-leaning states.”
"There is virtually no evidence that 'antifa' caused the wildfires currently burning in Oregon," Erica Fleishman, an Oregon State University professor and director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, told Reinstein. "The FBI has referenced these rumors as 'untrue.' Local law enforcement offices throughout Oregon are stating that the rumors are false. Even in the cases of fires in which arson is suspected, there are no credible links to antifa or other extremist groups."