Right-wing conspiracists linked antifa to the wildfires. Then they got a boost from Russian media. - 2020-09-12
Wildfires have long been weaponized by climate deniers wanting to sow political division. But this week, the blazes consuming the West Coast became part of an election cycle culture war when claims that antifa started wildfires in Portland went viral. There's no evidence that antifa started any wildfires, but conservatives on social media ran with the claim anyway, spreading it far and wide in Facebook groups and on YouTube.
It's unclear how the conspiracy theory originated, but its first big boost appears to have come courtesy of RT (formerly Russia Today, a Russian state-controlled media outlet known for mixing news with Russian propaganda.) RT's signal boost came in the form of an article that smashed together separate pieces of information about policing in Portland and the wildfires, insinuating a nefarious (and non-existent) link between the two.
"'Antifa are thrilled to hear this': Portland police ask protesters not to start blazes amid statewide wildfire emergency," read a RT headline from September 9th. The story focused on how the Portland Police Department was imploring protestors not to use fire during their demonstrations "since fire danger is very high right now." While the facts of the story are technically true, RT goes out of its way to connect the current wildfire crisis with antifa, by eliding dates, and wrongly conflating incidents. The Sheriff's call for protesters not to use fire came on September 9. The last time protestors set large fires during a protest was on the evening of September 6, lasting into the early hours of the next day. Regardless, RT used video from that night of the 6th (without noting the date the footage) as the primary art for the story.