Ammon Bundy, pictured above in 2014, is an apparent leader of the militia currently occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Southeastern Oregon. The armed takeover of the refuge’s headquarters building prompted intense Internet debate.
© JIM URQUHART/Reuters/Corbis
An anti-government militia has taken over a federal wildlife refuge in rural southeastern Oregon and demanded its return to the county’s ranchers, prompting intense debate on the Internet. But unlike other social firestorms in recent memory, this event isn’t streaming live from hundreds of phones across services like Vine, Periscope and YouTube.
First-hand information is coming from the government, the occupying militants and reporters on the ground. It shows that when events strike a national nerve from hard-to-reach locations, citizen journalists have to defer to the professionals to deliver the details.
“There’s no substitute for having people on the ground who can provide authoritative, verified information,” said Ben Mullin, a fellow at the Poynter Institute, a journalism organization.
The Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge is based in Harney County, which has about 7,000 residents. The nearest town is Burns, Oregon, where reporters from the state’s two major news sources — the Oregonian newspaper and Oregon Public Broadcasting — along with The Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press file their stories.
What little information has come from the standoff site has fed intense debate. Nearly 9,000 readers commented on the Oregonian’s breaking news story from Saturday and shared it more than 160,000 times by Monday afternoon.
On Twitter, people on all sides of the issue shared messages with hashtags from the factual, such as #BurnsOregon, to the farcical, including #VanillaISIS, comparing the militia to Islamic extremists.
That hashtag put a spotlight on the larger questions: Whether to label the militia as terrorists, and if law enforcement should aggressively remove them from federal land.
The argument that the militia are terrorists, as summarized by CNN National Security Analyst Juliette Kayyem, points out that “they are flouting federal law, they have a political purpose and they clearly are willing to use violence to get their way.” And using the hashtag #OregonUnderAttack, people have wondered if police would tolerate a similar armed group that didn’t consist of white men.
Social media “is an echo chamber that focuses and sharpens the discussion,” said Mullin.