Even though officials have named lightning as the chief suspect in starting the Beachie Creek and Loinshead fires, which are the two deeply affecting Marion County, the internet suspects a more sinister hand at play.
Social media has been abuzz with rumors that members of Antifa have been setting the fires that are raging across our state. Both Marion and Clackamas Sheriff’s Offices have denied these claims.
Antifa is described by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as, “a loose collection of groups, networks and individuals who believe in active, aggressive opposition to far right-wing movements.”
When confronted with the fact that no one has been arrested for arson in Marion County (at time of press) conspiracy theorists will often throw out the line, “I have a right to my opinion.”
While freedom of speech is a First Amendment right, there are consequences for the words people choose.
“It’s a tough thing, you’re talking about some government official saying, ‘Hey, limit your speech,’” said Keizer Police Department (KPD) Lt. Bob Trump.
(NOTE: The KPD is not directly involved with the handling of the wildfires across the state. The Keizertimes chose to speak with them about the dangers of misinformation in ongoing investigations in general because they are a local agency.)
“In a general sense, wherever the conversation would come up we would remind people that it’s not helpful to the investigation to speculate and spread things,” Trump said.
Various county sheriff’s offices have taken to social media to plead with people to stop spreading rumors. According to a post made by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office people have been overwhelming 9-1-1 and the non-emergency line asking about a false report claiming six Antifa members were arrested for arson. It delayed people experiencing actual emergencies from getting help.
“We join with our law enforcement partners in basically reminding people not to speculate as to the cause or origins of fires until there can be a complete investigation done,” Trump said.
Trump said the KPD has not ever been overwhelmed with calls about a particular case in the way Douglas County described, but he does think social media plays a role in the rapid spread of unconfirmed or not true information.
“People have a voice, a direct voice to the community and they can say literally whatever they want to say,” Trump said. Though everyone is free and able to express their opinion, that doesn’t mean every opinion is helpful—or even rooted in fact.
“There may be facts or circumstances about a case that we want to communicate to the public and that story is already being told across social media before I, as a spokesperson, have all the facts of what happened,” Trump said.
Social media gives users the ability to spread information quickly, but investigation and fact finding take more time.
“I need to report things based on what actually occurred and so I’m gathering all of that and there is already some speculation, people talking about things that I just know patently aren’t the facts,” Trump said. He said the department then has to play “catch up” and attempt to stop the spread of the false information and promote the spread of the actual facts.
In cases like the Clackamas County deputy, who was placed on administrative leave and then resigned after sharing a video in which he made claims that Antifa was setting the fires, misinformation can harm the relationship with the community and damage a department’s reputation, though Trump said it is difficult to measure that damage.
As far as the KPD is concerned, its leaders want to be transparent. Trump encouraged community members with questions about ongoing cases to call and ask, though there is a chance that the department may not be able to answer certain questions because it is an ongoing investigation.
In times like these it can be confusing on who to trust. While government officials tend to be more credible than a friend of a friend of a friend’s Facebook rant, there is a middle ground full of news stories debunking rumors.
“The closer the person or speaker is to the facts of the investigation, the more reliable that information is,” Trump said.