“They’ve arrested people for lighting forest fires up there. They’ve arrested left-wing people for lighting these forest fires. You know, air quote activists. This is something that’s also not being widely reported,” said podcaster Joe Rogan in an episode that aired on September 17th. Rogan is the highest-paid and most popular podcast star in the world, and his words carry heavy influence. Understandably, people get upset when someone like this says something so dangerously untrue.
This comment wasn’t immediately debunked; instead, it had already been debunked for a few days, because it stemmed from a larger conspiracy about radical leftists and Antifa members partly responsible for lighting the many forest fires currently blazing through California and Oregon. This rumor quickly circulated the internet and is reported to come from the far-right conspiracy group, QAnon. According to the group, the alleged facts of the situation were that Oregon police had 6 Antifa members in custody for committing these crimes.
Unfortunately, this misinformation was seriously harmful. It was reported on several right-wing media sites and then shared thousands of times by ordinary people on the internet. Under ordinary circumstances, a bit of misinformation spreading around might be considered harmless, but the west coast is burning acreage in near-record numbers, and resources need to be conserved and used effectively, or more people can die. Along with the millions of acres now destroyed, the wildfires have already claimed over 20 lives.
So how much damage did this rumor do? Police stations across California and Oregon were swarmed with calls and reports to investigate these allegations. 911 dispatchers and professional staff were busy dealing with this while their services were desperately needed to handle the wildfire control, evacuations, and rescues. The worst part might be that they did look into it. So much that police stations had to start telling people to stop reporting the information because it was already investigated and found to be false. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon posted on Facebook, “STOP SPREADING RUMORS. Follow official sources of information such as emergency response websites and pages, government websites and pages, and local reputable news outlets.” The FBI, another group with valuable time that shouldn’t be wasted, even launched an investigation into the claims and found them false.
Rogan’s apology came swiftly after his mistake, a day later to be exact, and seemed to be widely accepted. Comparatively, it was a great celebrity public apology. He accepted full responsibility and gave no excuses, other than explaining that part of the reason he reported this false information was that it was based on information confirmed to be true. An individual was arrested for lighting fires, but was not affiliated with any leftist activist group. He admitted misreporting the information and confessed he should’ve looked more into the evidence before opening his mouth about it.
Rogan has massive influence and effectively destabilized the mitigation of a catastrophe, but he doesn’t often make mistakes like this despite being a somewhat controversial individual for his conversations, actions, and opinions. Most people heard about the apology before even hearing about the error, and there’s something admirable about that.