From QAnon to Joe Rogan: How the "antifa wildfire" conspiracy spread

What started as local gossip has now made it all the way to the biggest podcast in the U.S.

Antifascists are not starting wildfires. This has been confirmed by the FBI and various local law enforcement agencies all up and down the west coast.

Yet, late last week, after many of these agencies had already debunked the rumors, Joe Rogan claimed on his show that left-wing activists were starting wildfires. Rogan’s program, The Joe Rogan Experience, is the most popular podcast in the U.S. Last year, estimates put the show at 200 million monthly downloads/listens.

Rogan has since retracted his statements and apologized for spreading this misinformation.

But, how did this happen? How did local rumors that likely sprung out of gossip in small town Facebook Groups eventually make it to a podcast that reaches millions and millions of people?

Since my last post breaking down the spread of the “antifa wildfire” conspiracies, Facebook committed to deleting related wildfire misinformation from its website. But, it was too late by then. The conspiracy had spread to a point where no single platform could contain it.

In an effort to document this spread, I tracked some of the main sources that continued to perpetuate the “antifa wildfire” claims. This is in no way an exhaustive list and I cannot precisely pinpoint where someone like Joe Rogan would’ve come across this false information. But, these sources had incredible influence in spreading the “antifa wildfire” conspiracy which eventually led to someone like Rogan coming across it.

QAnon

If there was any hope in tamping down the baseless rumors that antifaciscts left wing activists were responsible for starting wildfires, that quickly evaporated very early on thanks to QAnon.

QAnon is a conspiracy which portends that President Donald Trump is leading a campaign to take down a global satantic pedophile ring that just happens to be run by his political enemies. Q, the anonymous entity that leads the believers of this conspiracy and guides them with vague postings on the website formerly known as 8chan, first referenced the wildfires the night of Sept. 9.

When I wrote my last piece on antifa wildfire misinformation on September 9, there was no real established QAnon presence. By the next morning when my piece was published, QAnon’s fingerprints were all over the dissemination of the conspiracy.

To give an example of just how QAnon is in spreading conspiracies, take the first tweet that Q mentioned in their post. I came across that same tweet shortly before Q referenced it. The tweet is from a former Oregon GOP Senate candidate claiming that antifa arsonists were arrested for starting wildfires. (Law enforcement says this is not true.)

Before Q, the tweet had no more than a couple dozen likes and retweets.

Following Q’s boost, however, the tweet took off with 100x more engagement. As of now, the tweet has been retweeted more than 10,000 times and received more than 13,000 likes.

Fake Antifa Accounts

Twitter accounts pretending to belong to official antifa organizations have been causing quite a stir in Facebook Groups over the past few months.

Fake antifa Twitter accounts started popping up shortly after the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests were sparked after the police killing of George Floyd. These accounts usually threatened violence and were often shared on Facebook as proof that left wing activists were organizing violent events in small towns. One notable fake antifa accounts was actually confirmed to have been run by white supremacists looking to ignite tensions.

This time around two accounts particularly took hole, one claiming to be “Scarsdale Antifa” and the other, “Antifa Hamptons, NY.” (For those unfamiliar, the joke is that Scarsdale and the Hamptons are incredibly wealthy towns.)

Screenshots of these tweets traveled well beyond Twitter. Facebook users shared the fake antifa accounts as if they were actual confirmation of antifa setting wildfires.

The Scarsdale Antifa account has since been suspended by Twitter.

Law Enforcement Today

One of the most viral sources of the antifa wildfire conspiracy theories is a police blog called Law Enforcement Today. The website had a very viral post titled “Sources: Series of wildfires on the West Coast may be ‘coordinated and planned’ attack.”

The Law Enforcement Today post heavily insinuated that antifa was responsible for the wildfires by citing their “sources” who allegedly said there were investigations underway. People shared this post, based on its headline, as their source of proof that antifa was setting wildfires. However, buried in the Law Enforcement Today post was an important clarification.

“Contrary to rumors that have been circulating, there is currently no evidence to tie the wildfires to either far-right or far-left activists. And while investigations are underway into the causes of a number of the fires, we have been able to confirm that suggestions that Antifa members have been arrested are unfounded.”

As Mother Jones pointed out, Law Enforcement Today later changed the headline of the story to “Arson arrests made across the west coast as fires rage on” and added a editor’s note at the top of the post.

Law Enforcement Today has since moved on to speculating that the wildfires could be caused by Islamic terrorists.

Andy Ngo

Early on in the spread of antifa wildfire rumors, right wing provocateur Andy Ngo was being a bit more careful than usual…other than providing a Russia Today article with a perfect headline to tie antifa into the wildfires, of course.

However, when Joe Rogan tweeted out his apology, Ngo was quick to reply with a list of arson arrests in Oregon.

Its unclear what this example Ngo used in the tweet above, a person arrested for trying to start a fire at a hotel, has to do with Rogan apologizing for saying left-wing activists were trying to start wildfires. These tweets all received several thousand retweets and likes.

However, it seemed clear to Ngo what he was doing: subtly linking arson arrests to left-wing activists. Hence, this clarification after his series of tweets linking to news stories about these arson arrests — none of which have been tied to left-wing activists or antifa.

Donald Trump

The President of the United States retweeted a video last week thats edited to show individuals wearing antifa logos lighting fire to grassland behind Joe Biden during a speech.

It is clearly a parody video. However, Trump’s retweet certainly defies law enforcements’ pleas to stop spreading baseless rumors about the wildfires. Also, we know how Trump’s most fervent supporters look at everything he does as if there’s some secret message directed at them hidden between the lines. Trump’s simple retweet will no doubt be seen as confirmation of antifa’s involvement in setting the wildfires to a sizable portion of Trump’s base.

Once again, there is no truth to any rumor or speculation you may have heard about antifa setting these fires. Yet, the misinformation surrounding the wildfires continue to spread.

Antifa didn't start the fires

But that's not stopping the 2020 wildfire season conspiracy theories

By now, you’ve probably seen photos of the hellish red skies blanketing the west coast. Wildfires are devastating enormous swaths of California, Washington, and Oregon.

Conspiracy theorists know why these fires are happening: it’s antifa, of course!

Rumors, speculation, and outright disinformation are spreading around the internet accusing antifascist protesters of purposefully setting the wildfires, particularly those located in Oregon (because, you know, Portland).

Obviously, there is zero proof of antifa setting wildfires or being arrested for setting wildfires. Because it’s not happening.

No reporting, local or national media, has blamed antifa for these wildfires. In fact, police in Medford, Oregon have specifically had to refute fake posts going around on Facebook about the arrests of “antifa arsonists.”

Regardless, right wing personalities have continued to push this false narrative online. The main talking point appears to be that a number of antifa protests, usually purported to be around 7, have been arrested for starting the fires.

A Twitter verified U.S. Senate candidate, Paul Romero Jr., who came in second in the Oregon Republican Primary with over 100,000 votes in May, posted such a conspiracy on Twitter.

Katie Daviscourt of Turning Point USA tweeted similar claims, which I must add are completely irrelevant to the post in her screenshot. Note: the Molalla Police Facebook post in the screenshot does not confirm a single case of arson or antifa involvement. In fact, it appears the post confirms that the rumors and conspiracy theories spreading online don’t back what they’re actually seeing.

There are many causes for these wildfires. For example, one of the fires in Oregon was started when power lines were knocked down by falling trees. In California, more than 10,000 acres were set aflame thanks to a gender reveal party gone wrong.

We are quite literally in what is known as wildfire season in western North America. Yes, the season is getting worse, but that’s because of factors such as climate change. It’s no coincidence that California just recently experienced the highest temperature ever recorded in the midst of these wildfires.

So, where are these conspiracies originating from? It’s difficult to track as many of these posts have since been removed or were spread in private groups, but signs point to…where else, Facebook.

A search on the social networking platform pulls up numerous posts spreading stories about a friend or a relative who heard through the grapevine about antifa arrests connected to the wildfires.

Usually the users claim their information came from a first hand experience or it was overheard on a police scanner, which explains why there is no verifiable source or news article.

Their “proof,” if they have anything to show at all, often consists of a screenshot of another user’s Facebook comment. For example, the post below has been copied and pasted a number of times by various users detailing an extraordinary action movie-esque scene with antifa throwing molotov cocktails and “200 rounds of fire” being exchanged.

In a rare occurrence when a link to a news story is shared by someone claiming antifa is setting the fires, that link ends up A) having not a single mention of antifa or B) being an old article that has nothing to do with the current wildfires. One link commonly being passed around, for example, is this story of a man with a machete being arrested for arson…in July.

Of the accounts and posts that are still active on Facebook, there are two main “sources” (i.e. not random personal profiles or accounts) being shared that attempt to link antifa and the wildfires together.

On it’s Facebook page, The Roseburg Beacon says its an Oregon print weekly run. It’s presented under the guise of just being a local news source. However, the outlet, which is run by local real estate agent David Jaques, clearly has a right wing bent. A quick look at Jaques own Facebook page shows he often pushes right wing narratives such as anti-mask content surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook pages for both the Beacon and Jaques heavily push conspiracies about antifa being involved with the wildfires.

Note how Jaques spreads fake news about antifa arrests in his Facebook post, but the embed to his own outlet only speculates about antifa’s involvement in the wildfires. Because there’s no proof. Because it’s not true.

That brings us to an article from RT (Russia Today.) The headline of the piece reads: ‘Antifa are thrilled to hear this’: Portland police ask protesters not to start blazes amid statewide wildfire emergency.

It is true that Portland Police asked protesters on Twitter not use fire in demonstrations on Tuesday night. Here’s what that looked like:

So, where is the “Antifa are thrilled to hear this” line from RT’s headline, which highly insinuates an official statement that protestors support the wildfires for some bizarre reason.

Portland Police did not say that. Right wing provocateur Andy Ngo, who is quoted further in the article, did.

Combine these conspiracy theories, rumors, insinuations, and lack of reading comprehension…and that’s how the “antifa started the fires” misinformation spreads.

Did “outside agitators” invade Kenosha?

An investigation into who AG Barr called "violent instigators."

Did “outside agitators” invade Kenosha? An investigation.

Are outside agitators responsible for unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin?

A press release shared by the Kenosha Police Department on Sunday claimed that 102 of the 175 people arrested last week were from outside of Kenosha. Arrestees from out of town were from 44 different cities, according to Kenosha PD.

Two days later, President Trump and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr paid a visit to Kenosha to survey the city after a week's worth of civil unrest. During a press conference, AG Barr doubled down on the outside agitators claims but with even more ominous details.

“We were picking up information that these violent instigators were coming to Kenosha,” Barr said at the roundtable event. “They were coming from California, Washington State, a lot from Chicago, and they were coming up to Kenosha. So we expected matters to get worse.”

We’ve seen cities, such as Minneapolis, push the outside agitator narrative earlier this year...only for evidence to prove that these claims were untrue. So, what’s happening in Kenosha? 

To find out, I scraped the records off the Kenosha PD’s inmate search which provides names, addresses, and more about those arrested. I matched up the arrest records with the claims detailed in the Kenosha PD’s press release, only including arrests that appeared to be connected to the protests and fit within the timeframe of when they put out the release. (There are a few discrepancies with their press release and the data I was able to pull up, but the overall number arrested matches up.)

Here’s what I found.

The number of people arrested who list their address as within the city of Kenosha appears to be accurate.

However, the messaging surrounding everyone else is misleading.

Barr claims that “violent instigators” are coming into Kenosha from California, Washington State, and “a lot from Chicago.”

I found a total of 10 protesters from Washington state who were arrested between August 24th and August 30th in Kenosha. Another 7 were from Chicago. There was one single protester from California.

So, where are all these outside agitators in Kenosha, Wisconsin coming from then?

Wisconsin.

According to the arrestee database, a total of 127 out of the 175 people who were arrested in Kenosha, Wisconsin last week are from within the state. Of those Wisconsinites who were arrested at the protests, the vast majority live in cities that are between a 10 to 45 minute drive away from Kenosha. 

If a protester wasn’t from Kenosha, it was likely they were from nearby cities in Wisconsin such as Pleasant Prairie, Racine, or Milwaukee. 

That leaves us with around 48 people who aren’t from Wisconsin. Out of that amount, 29 are from Illinois. Why so many from Illinois? Because it’s extremely close to Kenosha! For example, 6 out of those 29 were from the town of Zion, Illinois. That’s approximately 10 miles from Kenosha, closer than some of those cities within Wisconsin.

What about those 10 protesters from Washington, the state with the most “outside agitators” after Illinois? Barr warned about them!

Nine of those arrested were from a Seattle-based volunteer group called Riot Kitchen, which has been providing food for Black Lives Matter protesters since June. You can see what they’ve been cooking up on their Twitter account. Kenosha police say they pulled the group over after they were tipped off about their out-of-state plates.

That brings us to what sort of crime these “violent instigators” are up to. Poring over the data I found that the vast majority of the people arrested last week were charged with the crime of staying out past the government-ordered curfew or for small violations like disorderly conduct.

Last week, two Kenosha residents were shot and killed while attending the protests. President Trump has defended the actions of the shooter, who is not from Kenosha, Wisconsin. He lives about 40 minutes away in Antioch, Illinois. And of course, the shooter is not included in these stats, which are being used to depict protesters as violent outsiders. That’s because he fled the state and was arrested back home.

The right wing defense of Kyle Rittenhouse is based on misinfo

Debunking a number of claims about the Kenosha shooting

On the night of August 25, 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse, an armed 17-year-old from Illinois, shot three protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two of them.

As videos depicting the night’s events flooded social media channels, conservative media and right wing social media personalities quickly jumped to Rittenhouse's defense.

But their defense of the shooter is based on misinfo. 

In fact, it’s based on a number of them. But there are a few main points of misinformation being spread to justify the shootings. Let's break them down.

CLAIM: The incident begins with Rittenhouse being pushed to the floor

The biggest piece of misinformation being spread about the Kenosha shootings is how the incident began. 

There are a number of viral photographs and videos depicting Kyle Rittenhouse on the floor, sitting in the middle of the street after having tripped with his AR-15 style firearm. A group of protesters accost Rittenhouse from behind and attack him. He fires his weapon and shoots two protesters, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz. Huber dies from his wound.

The defense of Rittenhouse upon seeing this video is often, well, it was all self-defense from an unprovoked “unruly mob” out to hurt or kill him.

Except at that point, Rittenhouse had already shot and killed someone. That’s why the protesters were following after him in the first place. 

It's unclear where Rittenhouse was going at that point or what he was going to do next...again, he had just shot someone and was leaving the scene. Huber and Grosskreutz were attempting to incapacitate an individual involved in an active shooting just minutes earlier.

Anthony Huber appears to try and hit Rittenhouse with his skateboard and disarm him. Rittenhouse fires a shot into Huber’s chest, killing him. Gaige Grosskreutz, a street medic, approaches Rittenhouse as Huber stumbles away after being shot. Grosskreutz is armed with a handgun, but puts his hands up after seeing Huber get shot. Grosskreutz continues forward and the 17-year-old shoots him in the arm. Rittenhouse gets up off the floor and walks past the oncoming police line.

The videos uploaded to Twitter sure help provide a visual of what went down. But each video is often presented with zero context of when they took place on the timeline of events. Mainstream media certainly didn’t help the issue. Early reports from the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN on Wednesday morning provided no such timeline, often grouping all three shootings together in reports. It was about a full 24 hours before the Times would publish what appears to be the first piece providing a time frame, explaining that there were two different places where the shootings took place.

This left more than enough time for misinformation to spread.

Conservative media personalities mostly shared just the video depicting the second shooting only in the first 24 hours following the incident. Those who only saw this clip believe that the video shows where the confrontation began.

CLAIM: A molotov cocktail was thrown at Rittenhouse

The defense of Rittenhouse from the right is different if the person knows there is indeed an earlier incident.

The right argues that a molotov cocktail was thrown at Rittenhouse. This justified lethal force, they say. One problem with this defense: there was no molotov cocktail.

Before shooting Huber and Grosskreutz in the street, Rittenhouse shot and killed a protester identified as Joseph Rosenbaum in a car dealership parking lot.

Videos depict Rittenhouse running across the street and entering the dealership with Rosenbaum chasing behind him. Rittenhouse stops behind a car parked in the dealership. Rosenbaum throws an object at Rittenhouse, which the criminal complaint has confirmed to be a plastic bag. There is a gunshot from the other side of the street. The armed 17-year-old turns around. Rosebaum approaches him. Rittenhouse fires his weapon. According to the coroner’s report, Rosenbaum was shot numerous times.

We don’t know what exactly led to the encounter in the dealership. But we do have a number of clips that show tensions were high between protesters and the militia group that Rittenhouse is with earlier in the night.

One video in particular that the far right seems to enjoy depicts Rosenbaum, the man who Rittenhouse shot and killed in the car dealership parking lot, taunting the militia group to shoot him. However, there’s a key detail in this same video that they seem to ignore or have missed.

Rosenbaum is clearly holding a plastic bag in the clip. Here’s a screenshot.

Now, here’s a screenshot of the “molotov cocktail” the right alleged Rosenbaum threw.

It’s a bag.

CLAIM: Rittenhouse calls 911 to help his first victim

There are a few baffling claims that even most conservative media outlets did not appear to report. This is one of them. 

After shooting Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse walks to the other side of his victim as nearby Daily Caller reporter Richie McGinniss administers first aid. McGinniss has claimed in video interviews that he didn’t realize the person standing beside him was the shooter and that he tells him to call 911. Rittenhouse picks up his phone and runs away. Video captures him saying “I just killed somebody” as he leaves the scene.

However, Rittenhouse is not on the phone with 911. Instead of calling for help, he phones his friend to tell him that he just shot a protester.

The misinformation about him calling 911 could possibly be coming from McGinniss. The DailyCaller reporter has done numerous interviews, including one on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, where he says he told Rittenhouse to call 911. Video from that moment then depicts the 17-year-old making a phone call. This falsehood also seems to originate from two right wing YouTube personalities. Both claim Rittenhouse calls 911 in their videos about the shooting. The more popular video has close to a million views. (One YouTuber, who goes by username “Donut Operator,” has retracted the 911 claim. The other, who operates under the name “towlie2110 lol” of “Clown World News” has not yet corrected his initial inaccurate claim and has since made this same claim in subsequent videos.)

CLAIM: A second person shoots Rosenbaum

Once the medical examiner’s report was released for Rosenbaum, a new conspiracy was born: there was a second person who shot Rosenbaum. There is zero evidence of this.

The claim stems from the coroner’s report which states that Rosenbaum was shot in the back, perforating his right lung and liver. Other wounds include a shot to the groin, which fractured his pelvis, and shot to the hand, and superficial wounds to his thigh and head.

So where’d the shot from the back come from if Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum are facing one another? Rittenhouse. Watch the video. Rosenbaum drops to the floor as soon as the first gunshot rings out from Rittenhouse’s firearm. He doesn’t fall backwards. He falls straight forward, face first, on his stomach. You can also see when those nearby offer him medical attention, they have to turn him over so they can administer aid.

So, Rosenbaum is hitting the ground face first, his back exposed to the air, three more shots ring out, and one gunshot perforates both his right lung and liver, which could suggest the shot came at an angle.

Based on the evidence, the only person who shot anyone that night was Kyle Rittenhouse.

CLAIM: Gaige Grosskreutz, the armed protester that Rittenhouse shot in the arm, is a felon

There was an attempt to smear Rittenhouse’s three victims immediately after the shootings took place. Right wing social media scoured the internet to look into their past, pulling up criminal histories. 

Only one of their claims – Grosskreutz is a felon which would prohibit him from having a firearm – from this would have any bearing on the events that occurred last night...if it were true. 

A search of the Wisconsin court case database pulls up no record of felonies committed by Grosskreutz. One can find a handful of misdemeanors, but nothing that would prohibit Grosskreutz from owning a firearm.

The source of the felony accusation appears to come from a page with basic information of a felony charge on a third party mugshot website. The page has incorrect details on Grosskreutz’s age and date of birth. 

It’s unclear if the charges were later dropped or if this third-party website just has completely incorrect information. One thing that is true though is that there is no record of this 2013 arrest of Grosskreutz or him being convicted of a felony in the online Wisconsin court database.

CLAIM: Rittenhouse shot protesters to protect the burning of a business

In on-the-ground interviews before the shooting, Rittenhouse says one of the main reasons he went to the protests was to defend a local business. The right’s defense is that the people who shot were rioters burning down local businesses. However, there is no proof that these three protesters were involved in damaging any place of business. 

In fact, the shootings didn’t even occur at the business that Rittenhouse was allegedly there to protect. 

The full video I mentioned earlier with Rosenbaum holding the plastic bag depicts an argument between a group of protesters and a group with the militia. Numerous protesters can be heard voicing that the militia group keeps approaching with their guns pointed at them. A few protesters who seem, at the very least, cordial with the militia approach them to express this same concern and how it's upsetting everyone. That’s what appears to initially anger Rosenbaum, who proceeds to taunt them. 

In this same video, one of the armed men walks over to his fellow militia members and yells at them to get back to the door of the establishment they're stationed at.

Earlier videos throughout the night show Rittenhouse walking the streets, far away from the business he was reportedly there to protect. In a few videos he can be seen asking if anyone needs medical attention. The armed 17-year-old appears to agitate the protesters while doing this on a few occasions, including in one specific video where protesters allege that Rittenhouse pointed his gun and barked orders at them earlier in the night.

In addition, there are newly surfaced clips from right before Rosenbaum pursues Rittenhouse where the 17-year-old is seen holding a small fire extinguisher. Misinformation has run rampant about the claim that Rittenhouse extinguished a garbage fire and that’s what set Rosenbaum off. This is pure speculation. 

There is a clip being passed around purportedly showing Rittenhouse extinguishing a large dumpster fire in front of a gas station. 

This is not Rittenhouse extinguishing the fire. Here’s video and a still from moments before showing that man with the fire extinguisher, who clearly looks nothing like the 17-year-old shooter.

It is unclear where Rittenhouse is going at this point as video shows him passing by small garbage fires while he’s holding the fire extinguisher. It’s also not yet clear what happened which causes that specific fateful confrontation between Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum.

In the end, a jury of Rittenhouse’s peers will decide whether the armed 17-year-old was acting in self defense or not. However, that determination should not be made based on stories of a remorseful Rittenhouse calling 911 or a molotov cocktail being thrown at him. Because they’re not true.

welcome to misinfo.com

it starts here

Heading into 2020, I noticed that the domain name “misinfo.com” was on sale. As someone who covers misinformation and conspiracy theories in politics, it seemed like a great name to build on going into a big election year.

Then a pandemic happened.

With coronavirus misinfo and fake news running rampant (even Snopes is having a hard time keeping up), now seems like a good time to pitch in and launch this.

Sign up now so you don’t miss out. Make sure to tell your friends. If you’d like to help, reach me via Twitter at @MattBinder.

Loading more posts…