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Antifa Fires

Misidentification: How The #Antifafires Rumor Caught On Like Wildfire

By
Erin Gallagher
Date Range
September 2020
Region
Oregon, United States
Network Terrain
Observable Outcomes

Overview

During the Oregon wildfires of September 2020, rumors spread locally and nationally that left wing activists were responsible. The evidence for so-called “antifa” involvement was based on a series of misidentifications and inference by public officials. The rumor received additional amplification from partisan influencers on the far right, fake antifa Twitter accounts, anonymous trolling communities on 4chan, the QAnon conspiracy network, and late stage attention from President Trump. 

STAGE 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning & Origins

On the evening of Sept 6, 2020, 15 leftist protesters were arrested in Portland in connection with the burning of a mattress outside a police precinct.1 The following evening, Sept. 7, The Holiday Farm wildfire broke out, one of many during Oregon’s 2020 fire season.2 The next day rumors that antifascist street protestors (an activist group popularly known as antifa) had started the wildfire began to circulate during the breaking news event. Based on our analysis, the rumor that antifa activists were responsible for starting this wildfire likely developed organically and was traded up the chain through trolls and partisan influencers into more mainstream local press and right-wing news ecosystems. Although there is no clear evidence of a central operator driving the campaign to purposefully muddy the waters and conflate these concurrent events, the amplification of these rumors nonetheless created confusion.

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web

The antifa arsonist rumors spread first as speculation on right-wing social media and small websites, where speculation and disinformation about the decentralized protest group are common topics. These sites included partisans on 4chan, the QAnon conspiracy community on 8kun, right wing blogs, and early amplification from far right media.

4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” board (/pol/) was an early site of seeding antifa arsonist rumors. On Sept. 8 a commenter posted, “My guess is Antifa has switched to starting forest fires.”1 About two hours later another comment blamed the Proud Boys: “this fire was one hundred percent started by proud boys.”2 More individuals on the far-right board continued to blame antifa, writing statements such as, “As far as I know, Antifa started some of these fires, after BTFO out of Salem last night,”3 “They've been camping by Detroit lake, and that area has massive fires.”4 “Antifa is burning down everything”5 and “I wouldn't be surprised if Antifa is lighting fires.”6

Campaign participants tracked the active crises in real time, generating significant conversation on 4chan. The wildfire topic on /pol/ garnered enough attention to warrant its own category: /owg/ (Oregon wildfires general) which accumulated 70 individual threads from Sept. 9 to 15. 

Pastebin was used as a repository for link roundups and info dumps. Anonymous /pol/ users compiled chronological lists of news reports about arson arrests to "show normies" what they believed was evidence that the wildfires were caused by arson and that antifa was responsible.7 An unknown individual also shared a list of names of people who were arrested that month, along with the exact date of arrest, their age and a link to an archive of a news report about their arrest. This list of names was intended to be used for "digging"—searching the internet and social media for proof that those arrested were antifascists. These lists of links and info dumps were seeded throughout /owg/ and later appeared in copypasta posts on Facebook and in a Q-drop.8 Several of the news links got tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of interactions on Facebook, according to Crowdtangle, a tool owned by Facebook that provides some social media metrics. 

Anita Esquivel and Jeffrey Acord, who were both named on the list of suspected arsonists who had been arrested, were labeled as "Confirmed Commie" in one of the Sept. 13 pastebins,9 and in (at least one) 4chan post.10

Esquivel was accused of being "Antifa" because she looked vaguely like an unidentified woman from a photo at a George Floyd protest in Los Angeles from June, 2020.11 A Sept. 7 KION news report about Esquivel's arrest was updated on Sept. 11 to clarify there was “no evidence suggesting that a woman accused of intentionally starting fires on Highway 101 has any connection to Antifa.”12

Images from Jeffrey Acord's social media and a prior arrest seem to have made him the primary "Antifa arson" suspect for campaign supporters. Acord’s arrest on Sept. 9 for allegedly starting a fire off a highway was presented as proof that antifa was responsible for the fires in news reports that were traded up the chain.13

Figure 1: /pol/ research thread compiling links of news about arson arrests. Source: 4plebs, Sept 11, 2020

Alongside the link roundups and decontextualized media about unrelated arson incidents, a series of statements, viral videos, and social media posts made by or featuring public officials in Oregon, as well as right-wing influencers, contributed to the virality of the rumors in the following days, though it is unclear if early 4chan /pol/ speculation directly impacted the public conversation. For example, a Sept. 9 tweet from Paul J Romero Jr., a US Senate candidate from Oregon,1 said: “Oregon is on fire!  Pallet Company in Oregon City confirmed Antifa arsonist on camera. Douglas County Sheriff has 6 Antifa arsonists in custody.”2 Romero’s tweet gained traction on Twitter and was circulated via screenshots on other platforms.3

The rumor also spread on smaller social platforms. For example, a Sept. 9 post on the subreddit r/Eugene (a subreddit focused on the city of Eugene, Oregon) asked “Antifa setting fires?”4 However, moderators intervened early, and comments replying to the post disputed the assertion, eventually resulting in the post being removed due to toxicity.5

A Sept. 9 viral Twitter thread containing a series of 58 tweets6—many with hashtag #ArsonExposed—by Turning Point USA’s Katie Daviscourt began with a tweet about the arrest of Jeffrey Acord.7 Her tweet stated, “In 2014 during an ANTI-POLICE protest, Acord was charged with possession of a concealed weapon without permit, carrying a knife, and illegal possession of fireworks.”8 It linked to an NBC report from 2014 when Acord was arrested in Seattle during a protest.9

Later on September 9, the Russian state-funded news agency Russia Today published an article summarizing current American right-wing social media conversation, which included discussion of both the left-wing protests in Portland and the Oregon wildfires. While this article made no concrete assertions that the two were related, the RT piece included footage of the Portland protestors who were arrested for burning mattresses on September 6, alongside tweets about the Oregon wildfires.10

The rumor was also amplified by city officials. For example, the Molalla Police Department shared a post on Facebook on Sept. 9 that was later edited for clarity on Sept. 10. The original post warned residents to “report suspicious activity…. to 911 immediately.” The Sept. 10 edit said “EDIT/CLARIFICATION: This is about possible looters, not Antifa or setting of fires. There has been NO Antifa in town as of this posting at 02:00 am.”11

Sept. 10 was a big day for the rumor. At an emergency public meeting in Clackamas County that day, Sheriff's Captain Jeff Smith told the county board of commissioners about “people of extremist groups staging gas cans for later destruction” and adding that they had “reports of people from other extremists groups. It's not confirmed Antifa but suspected Antifa. This is more specific to the Estacada area, reports and sightings of people armed with chainsaws and the goal was to fall telephone poles in hopes of starting further fires.” Video of the meeting was shared on YouTube.12 When asked by a board member to confirm if it was in fact antifa, Captain Smith said he got the information from "a sergeant on the street but I don't know who his informants are at this time." 

Small right-wing blogs and sizable Facebook pages were influential in seeding the rumors and unverified video clips which circulated on Facebook and YouTube.13 Also on Sept. 10 a new website called Protester Privilege (the domain of which was registered just two months prior in July 202014) published a blog with the headline “Antifa Arsonist Arrested Near Tacoma, WA After Live-streaming Himself.”15 The same day, the Blue Lives Matter Facebook page posted an article with the text: "The western United States is on fire, and now authorities are discovering that the fires aren't as accidental as initially believed."16

Right wing blog American Greatness published a post on September 10 as well, with the headline “Left-Wing Agitator Arrested for Starting Fire in Washington, Suspected of Starting Two Other Wildfires” and currently has 30,000 reactions and 15,000 shares.17

Scarsdale Antifa, one of the original impersonator antifa accounts, tweeted that day, “We and other chapters of Antifa around Oregon have collaborated to ignite fires around the state to draw attention to the #climateemergency. #Antifafires #Antifariots.”18 This tweet, and others that day from right wing influencers like Tara LaRosa, are examples of keyword squatting and viral sloganeering within the otherwise underused hashtag #antifafires.19

Figure 2: Fake antifa tweets claiming antifa were igniting fires. Source: Twitter, Sept 15, 2020: accessed via https://archive.ph/KOLuk

A /pol/ user claimed to have created this account in 2017.1 Guardian journalist Jason Wilson tweeted that he noticed “hundreds” of Facebook posts citing Scarsdale Antifa.2 Multiple versions of screenshots of the tweet went viral and were shared on Facebook pages such as Common Sense Evaluation3 and Gays for Trump Organization.4

A link to the fake Antifa tweet also went viral on Facebook. Although Twitter has since suspended the account, the URL still registers over 2 million Facebook interactions, according to Crowdtangle. 

Also on Sept. 10, right-wing YouTube influencers Mr. Obvious5 and Salty Cracker6 published videos blaming antifa and BLM for starting the wildfires. Their videos got hundreds of thousands of views.

The antifa arsonist rumor notably was also seeded by Q, the pseudonymous central figure of the QAnon conspiracy movement. The first of 11 8kun posts by the operator of the Q persona related to “Antifa fires” was posted on Sept. 10. This first Q-drop included links to 2 tweets; the Sept. 9 viral tweet7 from Paul J Romero Jr and a Sept. 9 tweet from Trooper Ryan Burke that advised about an arrest on a highway. “Q” also suggested the fires were “highly coordinated [funded]” and domestic terrorism and that they were in Democrat [D] controlled areas. 

On September 11, a new Twitter account called @AntifaOr (Antifa Oregon) sprang up, in the style of previous Antifa parodies. It is still online at the time of writing.8 This new account interacted with @AntifaHamptons (since suspended) and both continued to tweet about the fires throughout the news cycle although their tweets did not gain the traction of the Scarsdale Antifa tweet.

Figure 3: Q-Drop sharing tweets linking Antifa to the Oregon wildfires. Source: QAlerts, Sept 10, 2020.

That day, three more Q-drops appeared on 8kun about the wildfires, including a map of the fires, a link roundup,1 and a Facebook post from KUTV News, a CBS-affiliate in Salt Lake City, Utah.2 That Facebook post received 13K shares. It said, “ARSON: Right now, there are 14 confirmed fire spots, all started between 1-5 a.m. Saturday morning. "These were intentionally set fires, not caused by dragging chains, abandoned campfires, etc." - U.S. Forest Service.” 

That day, Portland “cop watch” activist and YouTube influencer Robert West (16.9K YouTube subscribers) uploaded a video of Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office deputy Mark Nikolai stating, “Antifa motherfuckers 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.”3 (Nikolai was later placed on administrative leave as a result of this video.4)

Nikolai featured prominently in yet a third video of Clackamas County law enforcement uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 11. Entitled, “Clackamas County Sheriff and Militia,” it is described as “Clackamas County Sheriff advises local militia how best to avoid legal trouble while protecting the area from ‘Antifa’. They discuss when it’s appropriate to perform citizen’s arrests, ID checks, and shoot to kill.” It has received 111,496 views.5 

Right-wing YouTuber Mr Reagan uploaded a video on Sept 11 titled “Is Antifa Starting The Wildfires?” that has 171,845 views and 14,745 FB interactions.6

STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists 

Antifa, and left wing political organizing, are a major political wedge issue in the United States, and the wedge is clearly visible from media exposure of the antifa arsonist rumors in right wing and conservative press. The Protestor Privilege article from Sept. 10 suggesting an arrested arsonist was an antifa member was cited by multiple right-wing blogs including Post Millennial,1 Gateway Pundit,2 and Big League Politics.3 The YouTube channel operated by Protester Privilege which was created in August of 2020 uploaded a video titled “Tacoma WA Wildfire Arsonist Live Streams His Arrest Jeffrey Alan Accord” on Sept. 9 that has 49,776 views at the time of writing, an unusually large amount of views for a channel with only 612 subscribers.4

On Sept. 10, Law Enforcement Today published a widely shared article headlined, “Sources: Series of wildfires on the West Coast may be ‘coordinated and planned’ attack - police on alert."5 Law Enforcement Today eventually changed its headline and added an update, but only after the article had already received significant attention. The original article had already been included in a pastebin, the content of which was then copy pasted across multiple platforms. 

Also on Sept. 10 The Post Millennial published an article with the headline, “Antifa militant livestreams his own arrest after allegedly setting fire in Washington State.”6 The article also originally included two viral tweets from Turning Point USA representative Katie Daviscourt that said “These fires are allegedly linked to Antifa and the Riots”7 and included a Facebook post from the Molalla Police Department that was later edited,8 asking the public to report suspicious activity to 911.

The Post Millennial later changed the headline to “BLM activist livestreams his own arrest after allegedly setting fire in Washington State” and also added the following update to the bottom of the article: “An earlier version of this article included a tweet that expressed unproven speculation regarding the cause of the wildfires. The tweet was removed.”

Right-wing influencer Jack Posobiec tweeted the Post Millennial article on Sept. 10 with the text: “Antifa militant livestreams his own arrest after allegedly setting fire in Washington State, may be linked to multiple fires.” 

Gateway Pundit also published an article on Sept. 10 with the inflammatory headline, “Antifa Radical Arrested for Arson in Washington State - Was Caught on Highway Live-Streaming on Facebook Before Arrest (Video).” The site later changed it to “Washington Man Arrested for Arson Near Pallyup — Was Caught on Highway Live-Streaming on Facebook Before Arrest (Video).”9

Figure 4: Gateway Pundit edits headline of article to remove misleading statement about Antifa. Source: Gateway Pundit, Sept 10, 2020

Through the lifecycle of the rumor, there were multiple responses directly from local police departments attempting to debunk the rumors. The Medford Police Department was one of the earliest we found. On Sept. 9 they posted on Facebook denouncing a fake post that had been created to look like it had come from their Facebook page.1

Multiple law enforcement agencies also debunked the rumors early, including the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office2 and Jackson County Sheriff's Office3 on Sept. 10, and the FBI’s Portland office4 and Linn County Sheriff's Office5 on Sept. 11.

The rumors were causing law enforcement all sorts of problems. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office post said their 911 operators and professional staff were being overrun with questions about the false rumors.6

On Sept. 10, local firefighter TJ Hiner made a Facebook live video that was shared widely debunking the rumor that Antifa were setting the fires.7

The Molalla Police Department posted on Sept. 9 that people should watch for looters, but when people took that to mean they were warning about antifa, they edited their post on Sept 10 to clarify that they were not.8

Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry, was quoted in a Sept 10 debunk article in the New York Times: “We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically-influenced arson campaign.”9

On Sept 11, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that local FBI and law enforcement agencies were receiving reports that extremists were committing arson in Oregon, and that locals were establishing roadblocks and forming groups to look for looters or antifa setting fires.10 Three journalists from Oregon Public Broadcasting were stopped by vigilantes on Sept. 10 and held at gunpoint by three men who proceeded to interrogate them and told them to leave the area.11 Other local residents left signs near their properties threatening potential looters.

On Sept. 11, CNN reported that QAnon followers spread false claims about antifa starting the wildfires 12 hours after the Q-drop that included Paul J Romero Jr’s tweet.12

A Tucker Carlson Sept. 11 segment on Fox News questioned the role of climate change in the Oregon wildfires and intimated arson was really to blame.13

The New York Times reported about the @scarsdaleatifa account’s involvement in the rumor, writing: “Former Parody Account Was Early in Spreading False Rumors on Fires” on Sept. 16.14 Those tweets fed into false rumors that Antifa or leftist activists had started wildfires. Politifact debunked them on Sept. 14.15

STAGE 4: Mitigation

These responses from law enforcement and the press resulted in some-small scale mitigation efforts of the viral rumor on the part of the tech platforms and official fact-checkers, but these efforts struggled to keep up with the spread of the campaign. Much of the mitigation was community sourced, taking place directly in the comment sections of social media posts or articles.

On Sept. 9, David Emory of Snopes posted a Twitter thread debunking various rumors, as did journalist Matt Binder on September 10.1 A deluge of fact checks and debunks were published in national US media, including by several of Facebook’s third party Fact Check partners such as Politifact2 on Sept 10 and USA Today,3 Associated Press,4 FactCheck.org5 and Lead Stories6 on Sept 11.

On Sept 9, during the initial spread of the rumor, a local Eugene Orgegon subreddit took steps to mitigate the antifa fires story itself. The moderators of the r/Eugene subreddit removed a post7 that was titled “Antifa setting fires?” and currently has a sticky note that the thread was banned for toxicity. Reddit as a whole did not mitigate these rumors, but rather individual communities like r/Eugene took action.

Figure 5: Stickied comment on r/Eugene thread re: antifa arson rumors. Source: Reddit, Sept 9, 2020

Mitigation of false rumors by other social media platforms was delayed and ultimately ineffective. Despite the fact that multiple law enforcement agencies and several of Facebook’s own third-party fact checkers published debunks on Sept. 10 and 11, Facebook took no formal action to mitigate the rumors until Sept. 12, when Facebook policy communications director Andy Stone announced Facebook was “removing false claims that the wildfires in Oregon were started by certain groups” in a tweet.1

On Sept. 11, Reuters reported, “A Twitter spokeswoman said it did not seem that the rumors violated the social media site’s rules, saying in a statement: ‘As we have said before we will not be able to take enforcement action on every Tweet that contains incomplete or disputed information.’”2 Twitter suspended the Scarsdale antifa account, as was noted by Ali Breland on Sept. 12 but Twitter never made any formal announcement about the fake antifa account.3

On Sept. 14 one of the fake antifa accounts tweeted, “Thanks @jack for rightfully reinstating our Twitter account. Your support of the new norm is greatly appreciated! And congratulations to @ScarsdaleAntifa for getting your account back as well. The resistance cannot be stopped👊✊."4

One of the pastebins was taken down by Pastebin on November 26, 2020.5

On Oct. 28, an article by The Oregonian announced that Mark Nikolai, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office deputy who alleged antifa were the cause behind the fires, “received an undisclosed sanction” and retired in October.6

STAGE 5: Adjustments by Manipulators to New Environment

Despite the fact checks, fake account suspensions and content removal, fake antifa accounts and false rumors about antifa causing wildfires continued to spread and received amplification from influencers, media outlets, and politicians throughout the fire season. Campaign participants therefore did not have to change their approach to keep the story circulating, allowing them to redeploy the same tactics that were observable during the initial seeding phase of the rumor. 

Research by Eli Weiner of the German Marshall Fund found that posts, links, and YouTube videos blaming antifa for starting the fires were shared widely in large and mostly private ReOpen Facebook groups and those posts remained up on the platform for days after the platform’s commitment to contain the rumor on Sept. 12.1 Not only was the content not removed, comments accumulated on those posts that contained blatant incitement to violence such as calling for civilian militias to “rise up” and fight, encouraging people to attack public officials, and to shoot antifa dead on sight.

Two other fake Antifa accounts continued to tweet about the wildfires on Sept. 12-15 but did not go viral like the Scarsdale tweet. Some of the original boosters of the rumor amplified the redeployment. Protestor Privilege published a second article on Sept. 12, this time from “James the editor,” stating that he stood by the “editorial decision to associate Jeffrey Alan Acord with the ideologies that underpin the Antifa movement.”2 That same day, a blog called Abrupt Earth Changes published “Antifa admit to ‘igniting fires’ all over the country to draw attention to ‘Climate Change’’” that included a screenshot of the fake Scarsdale Antifa tweet. That blog received 4,461 Facebook interactions.3

Pastebin links were continually produced during redeployment. The first of three new pastebins containing link roundups and various resources such as fire maps, air quality reports, links to Katie Daviscourt’s thread, a Tucker Carlson video, the Clackamas County Zoom Meeting, and a tweet from what appeared to be an actual Antifacist firefighter published on Sept. 12.4

Despite debunking, misatributing Anita Esquivel as an antifa arson suspect was redeployed by several participants. A Sept. 12 Facebook post in a Facebook group called Back the Blue (177.3K members) contained a link to a report about her arrest. Two more pastebins were published on Sept. 13 that included a long list of the names, ages, dates, and locations of people arrested and links to media reports about their arrests or booking information.5 These again mentioned Anita Esquivel, labelling her a “Confirmed Commie.” One of the Sept. 13 pastebins was exclusively a series of links to imgbb, a free image hosting and sharing service where further “proof” was preserved.6 One such image is a collage of Esquivel’s mugshot, highlighted text from the update by KION debunking that Esquivel was connected to antifa, and a photo of an unidentified woman at a George Floyd protest in Los Angeles from June 2020, who has long dark hair like Esquivel.7 

On Sept. 13, far-right libertarian financial blog Zero Hedge published “Facebook And FBI Wage Infowar On West Coast Wildfire Arson ‘Conspiracy Theories.’" Zero Hedge’s article included several fact checks debunking the arsonist rumors while suggesting new narratives that contained false information.8 The article has since been removed, however. Also that day, the far-right Hal Turner Radio Show published an article referencing and embedding the Clackamas County Commissioners video that helped legitimize the rumors for some campaign participants several days earlier.9 

In addition to the continued seeding of rumors alleging antifa’s involvement with the fires, seven Q-drops were posted on Sept. 13. Four of them were related to the wildfires, including a link roundup, the featured image for obscure website “Freight Broker Live” that contained a collage of mugshots of people arrested for arson with the text ARSON written in all caps red font over each mugshot, a photo of actual firefighters with an Antifascist flag, and the text “people running around dressed as firefighters with chainsaws and gas… “and a link to the YouTube video of the Sept. 10 Clackamas County board of commissioners.10 The three other Sept. 13 Q-drops contained images of antifa supposedly training in Syria, a meme calling antifa the “paramilitary wing of the Democratic Party of America,” and a photo of four men in fatigues holding an antifascist flag in front of an ISIS flag with the text “Know your enemy.” 

Press and media coverage of the wildfires and antifa also continued unabated. On the Sept. 14 edition of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle, for example, host Laura Ingraham asked, “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?”11 On Sept 17, podcaster Joe Rogan gave credence to the conspiracy. “They’ve arrested left-wing people for lighting these forest fires,” he said, adding “You know, air-quote, ‘activists.’ This is also something that’s not widely being reported.”12 Rogan walked back his claims on Sept. 18 in two tweets and posted a video issuing an apology and a retraction on Instagram. His retraction video currently has 3,553,096 views.13 On Sept. 18, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported “vigilante activity persists after Oregon fires, leads to citations.”14 Roadblocks were guarded by men wearing hunting clothes, looking for leftist agitators. An African American woman named Latoya Robinson was driving with her children in the car when she was accosted at a roadblock by a ‘heavily armed” man with an AR-style long gun and a visible sidearm according to The Guardian.15 

That same day, the far right conspiratorial Frank Gaffney radio show featured retired Colonel John Mills, a former national security professional, who said antifa were responsible for the wildfires.16

What’s more, the rumors received amplification from then US president, Donald Trump. On Sept. 15, @elenochle, a now-suspended Twitter account, shared an edited video of Joe Biden speaking with two animated “Antifa” men with blowtorches setting fire to a field.17 Sometime between Sept. 15 and 16, Trump retweeted the hoax video.18 Trump’s retweet was reported in The Independent on Sept. 16 and Daily Kos on Sept. 18.19 When the tweet from the suspended account was archived on Sept. 17 it had garnered 728K views, over 13K retweets and over 31K likes.20

Cite this case study

Erin Gallagher, "Misidentification: How The #Antifafires Rumor Caught On Like Wildfire," The Media Manipulation Case Book, May 11, 2021, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/misidentification-how-antifafires-rumor-caught-wildfire.