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Spreading unfounded rumors is not helpful

Southern Oregon is facing the worst fire disaster in its history. Firefighters are still battling the huge South Obenchain fire, smoke continues to blanket the valley, and the full magnitude of the destruction is still being assessed. The best thing we can all do now is reach out to our friends and neighbors who need our help. The worst thing we can do is spread unfounded rumors about who was responsible for starting the fires in the first place.

Social media, which has been helpful to many as a place to connect with loved ones and exchange information, has also been a source for wild conspiracy theories. The Medford Police Department was compelled to debunk one such claim, posting on its Facebook page a screenshot of the original post with “FALSE” superimposed across it. The post was designed to look like it had appeared on the Medford Police Facebook page, and contained a mugshot of a man with the message that Medford Police had arrested five people in connection with the fires and suggesting they were affiliated with the Proud Boys group. Other rumors circulating claimed seven members of Antifa had been arrested for arson, and that black-clad people affiliated with Antifa were gathered in the Walmart parking lot. None of these things is true.

It didn’t help matters that the department allowed comments speculating about the conspiracy theories to remain on its official Facebook page for hours without removing them.

Medford is not alone in harboring conspiracy theories. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office posted a graphic on its Facebook page reading “STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS.” The post said 911 dispatchers and Sheriff’s Office staff were being overwhelmed with requests for information about reports that six Antifa members were arrested for setting fires in Douglas County. That wasn’t true either.

It’s a natural impulse when faced with an unprecedented disaster to want to assign blame. It must be someone’s fault.

To be clear, it is entirely possible that some person or persons might have deliberately set one or more fires. But we do not know that, and until authorities announce an arrest or an officially determined cause for any of the fires, speculation is irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

The cause(s) of the fires will be determined in good time. Right now, dealing with the fires that are still burning and the destruction they left behind is the top priority. We cannot emphasize this enough.

Emergency responders have more than enough to do fighting real fires and helping people evacuate their homes without having to deal with wild rumors.

Just don’t spread them.