Over Labor Day weekend, a powerful windstorm swept across the hot, drought-stricken Oregon landscape, sparking an outbreak of destructive and deadly wildfires. In the traumatic days that followed, something else destructive began spreading wildly: conspiracy theories.
While scientists say human-caused climate change helped lay the groundwork for these historic wildfires, climate science deniers helped fan the flames of conspiracies about how they started. In a year of compounding crises, those who reject the reality of climate change are part of a network of fringe communities, including anti-vaccine activists and QAnon, that are intersecting and connecting online like never before. Bolstered by these connections, climate deniers are amplifying mis- and disinformation that’s spilling over dangerously into a world literally on fire. (And in case you’ve been distracted by recent political events: There are still active fires in California and Oregon.)
Take the Canadian advocacy group Friends of Science, a small nonprofit society (it has a budget of about $113,000 and nearly 38,000 Twitter followers) that incorrectly blames the sun for driving climate change while unironically claiming its goal is to “educate the public about climate science.” On Sept. 13, as Oregon officials were already beating back misinformation about the wildfires, Friends of Science repeatedly retweeted a bogus Twitter confession claiming that antifa groups had collaborated to start the fires in order to “draw attention” to climate change.
Amid such claims of arson and looting, armed vigilante patrols in Northwest Oregon began setting up illegal roadblocks, intimidating both families fleeing from fires and journalists reporting on them. In Southern Oregon, a county sheriff’s office asked the public on Sept. 10 to stop overwhelming 911 dispatchers with calls about an untrue rumor that six antifa members had been arrested for starting fires in Douglas County. Local officials and the FBI forcefully rebutted claims of politically motivated arson in Oregon’s wildfires. But the loosely organized movement of left-wing activists has become a favorite right-wing boogeyman and frequent target for President Donald Trump, especially as racial justice protests gained steam over the summer and in Portland. As the wildfires raged in Oregon, and the rest of the West Coast, this conspiracy about antifa morphed into a new and dangerous form.
“Just like some of the conspiracy theories are manifesting in the real world as anti-mask protests,” says Kate Starbird, a researcher with the University of Washington who has tracked the explosion of online disinformation about COVID-19, “here they’re manifesting as roadblocks and people threatening others with guns.”
After sharing versions of the antifa arson conspiracy multiple times, Friends of Science retweeted other mentions of arson in the Pacific Northwest, even minor ones. An intentional brush fire that’s quickly extinguished or a fire at the site of the Portland protests somehow becomes a way to dismiss the entire climate crisis. As misinformation researcher Claire Wardle points out, “The most effective disinformation has always been that which has a kernel of truth to it.”
Another issue likely at play here is confirmation bias—the tendency for people to accept new information that confirms their existing beliefs and worldviews. That bias could leave some people susceptible to alternative explanations, like Trump blaming poor land management for the fires’ severity—a strategy that has been convincing for many on the right. And as people go through a process that Starbird describes as “collective sense-making,” they search for evidence that explains the crisis they are enduring. “If there are two competing theories emerging from the sense-making process,” says Starbird, “people might be more drawn to the ones that align with their preexisting beliefs.”
Given that climate deniers are more likely to ascribe to conspiracy theories in general, reject expert knowledge, and distrust institutions, it’s easier to understand their embrace of the ideas that scientists are duping the public over human-caused climate change or that left-wing arsonists are at work in Oregon’s fires. “If the scientific community says human-caused global warming is exacerbating wildfires, how do you explain that?” says George Mason University climate communication researcher John Cook. “They’re either all wrong in the same direction accidentally, or they’re all colluding to deceive us. [Science deniers] opt for the latter.”
Conspiracies that arsonists were behind the West Coast’s wildfires also gloss over the science itself. Climate change is not so much the match that’s lighting these catastrophic fires; it’s creating the extra-friendly conditions for the tinder to burn more, and more intensely, no matter what ignites it. That goes back to Starbird’s point about sense-making: If conspiracy theorists are looking for an explanation for the unprecedented wildfires, the role of climate change may not jibe with their existing beliefs—but the idea of antifa arsonists does. But climate science deniers trying to wield arson like a bludgeon against the climate crisis is sadly not even unique to this year. (Nor are conspiracies about antifa invasions in rural Oregon.) In January, Australia was similarly consumed by both catastrophic fires and pernicious conspiracies from the far-right that those fires were started by a rash of arsonists, including “ecoterrorists” using a false flag operation to stoke fears about climate change. Sound familiar?
It was for Daniel Angus, a digital communications researcher at Queensland University of Technology who tracked the role of roughly 300 Twitter bots in spreading this disinformation in Australia under the hashtag #ArsonEmergency. Months later, he and his colleagues watched with dread the scale of the wildfires building in the Western U.S. “We all figured it was a matter of time before we saw a repeat of the disinformation campaigns as well,” he says. Angus characterized both situations as “an attempt to deflect from the important connection between the severity of these fires and the growing impacts of human-induced climate change.”
When I pointed out to Friends of Science that the antifa fires confession was fake, communications manager Michelle Stirling thanked me for flagging that the original account had been suspended and proceeded to share information on humans as the primary cause of wildfires and the importance of managing fuel loads in forests. However, to date, Friends of Science’s retweets and reply to the fake antifa confession have not been deleted.
It’s extremely difficult to figure out whether a group or individual is cherry-picking examples of arson in Oregon or Australia in order to promote a political objective or because those represent genuine beliefs bolstered by biased thinking; the two often look practically identical. “Someone who cherry-picks with the intent to deceive looks just like someone with confirmation bias. E.g., intentional deception looks just like self-deception,” according to Cook. It’s a nauseating cycle of disinformation, one that will keep spinning as advocates of different conspiracy theories egg one another on.
Recently, Melissa Ryan, CEO of consulting firm CARD Strategies, which works with clients to counter disinformation, was involved with a research project that found a vocal group of climate science deniers has begun regularly engaging online with QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that a “deep state” cabal of global elite pedophiles is plotting to overthrow Trump. QAnon adherents follow messages from an anonymous leader “Q,” who has begun targeting climate action as a “scam.” Recently, Q referenced a tweet by Paul Romero, a failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate for Oregon. In his tweet, Romero repeated misinformation blaming the state’s fires on antifa arsonists—and then refused to delete the tweet even after admitting it was “not 100% accurate.” The QAnon community helped his false tweet about the fires go viral. Friends of Science is among those retweeting QAnon accounts, often animal videos. “As with any random account, we sometimes retweet things we think might interest our followers. We also retweet cartoons,” says Stirling, in reply to questions about whether the group supports QAnon.
The climate denial community’s slide toward the increasingly conspiratorial worries Ryan. That, combined with the flood of disinformation coming out of a volatile protest scene in Portland and Trump’s messages targeting antifa, amounts to what she calls “a perfect storm of horrible.”
Add to that storm a boost from someone with a massive platform, like podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan. In an episode released Sept. 17, Rogan repeated a version of the left-wing arson conspiracy to his millions of listeners. While he quickly apologized for spreading this misinformation, he has a history of interviewing conspiracy theorists including the notorious Alex Jones (though Rogan has also argued with a guest over her climate denial).
Whether people like Rogan or climate deniers sincerely believe in the conspiracy theories they’re sharing about forest fire–happy anarchists almost matters less than the fact that they’re willing to amplify such misinformation. There are a lot of people who “don’t necessarily totally believe it, but they believe it just enough to spread it because it aligns with their political objectives,” says Starbird, who specifically studies the dissemination of disinformation during crisis events. (She’s very busy this year.)
And because corrections rarely travel as far as the original message, moves like Rogan’s risk continuing to pull in what Starbird calls the “unwitting crowd.” By ignorantly passing along conspiracies and disinformation, such people may end up endangering their communities by forcing first responders to spend precious resources handling the fallout of such rumors. As Ryan pointed out, “dealing with this is now part of their job and frankly makes them less safe.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.