Facebook struggles to delete posts falsely linking activist groups to Oregon fires, report says

Social media posts are making baseless claims that activist arsonists are to blame for the deadly fires.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Steven Musil
2 min read

A resident searches through remains after a wildfire destroyed several homes in a mobile home park in Estacada, Oregon.

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook said it will remove posts that falsely claim deadly wildfires in Oregon were deliberately started by arsonists for both far-right and far-left groups. The move came as the FBI said its investigations have found the claims to be unsubstantiated. New research published Wednesday, however, shows that deleting these posts may be easier said than done. 

Facebook, which typically places labels on posts that contain misinformation, said Saturday it's removing posts "that could lead to imminent harm given the possible risk to human life as the fires rage on." The social media giant decided on the more stringent approach after "confirmation from law enforcement that these rumors are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a Twitter post.

Despite Facebook's efforts, conspiracy theories about the fires in Oregon reportedly continue to spread in private Facebook groups. Researchers with the German Marshall Fund told Axios that content that falsely links antifascist groups to the fires remains available and is still circulating in those private groups. The researchers have reportedly been tracking 33 groups, some with up to 171,000 members, that were originally started to protest coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

More than 40,000 people have been forced to leave their homes as fires burned more than 1 million acres in Oregon last week.

Third-party fact-checker Politifact on Sept. 9 debunked posts that blamed Antifa for starting the fires, calling out a tweet by a former congressional candidate that falsely claimed six arsonists connected to the far-left group were in custody for starting a fire at a pallet company. Screenshots of the post by Paul Romero were shared dozens of times on Facebook, Politifact wrote.

The fact-checker called Romero's tweet "wrong" and said there's "no evidence" left-wing activists were to blame for starting the fires burning in California and Oregon.

The FBI field office in Portland, Oregon, tweeted on Sept. 11 that "reports that extremists are setting wildfires in Oregon are untrue" and urged people to stop the spread of misinformation by sharing information only from trusted sources.