In Oregon occupation, residents choose sides on social media — and things get ugly

In a small town, people are bound to talk. And the town of Burns, Ore., is no different.

“We call it the Burns churn,” Burns resident Anna Jo Surber said about the gossip that typically permeates this town of about 2,700 — the biggest in southeastern Oregon's Harney County. “Everybody talks about everybody’s business.”

Lately, though, the churn has been turned on high, as the occupation of a national wildlife refuge by a group of armed antigovernment protesters from out of state has turned Burns’ business into national news.

Last week, for the first time, Harney County had to hire a public information officer to handle its unprecedented volume of media requests. Laura Cleland’s first mission in the role was to get control of the social media message, creating official Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts for both Harney County and the sheriff’s department and drafting a policy to regulate posts as well as comments.

Outside of Cleland’s control, however, is the Harney County Forum, a private Facebook group that has become the center of community debate ever since the militia came to town.

Like any group dealing with a controversial subject on social media, the Forum has been flooded with misinformation, name-calling and even threats. But unlike the typical comments section, where vitriol and hate are slung around anonymously and at a distance, the fights in the Harney County Forum are mostly between residents of this small community, who might run into each other at the grocery or have kids who go to the same school.

“It [the rumor mill] is already bad, but social media escalates it and compounds it because it’s so much faster,” said Surber, who estimated that the forum had about 100 members before the occupation started last Saturday, Jan. 2. To date there are 1,497.

Anna Jo Surber is a Burns resident and employee at the Narrows, a restaurant, gas station and RV park near the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Surber works at the Narrows, a restaurant, gas station and RV park that sits at the bottom of the hill leading up to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The only business for at least 30 miles, over the last week the Narrows has become a popular spot for people — mostly members of the press — to refuel their cars, cellphones and selves between visits to the refuge.

The media presence has been great for business. But it’s also made the Narrows and its owners, Linda and Ron Gainer, the subject of attack.

In story published Tuesday by NPR, Ron Gainer was quoted saying that he took leftover food to the refuge over the weekend.

Linda later told Yahoo News that the food was paid for but the article implied it had been a donation from the Gainers. Not long after the story was published it was shared on Facebook, prompting a flood of angry emails and phone calls from people accusing the Gainers of supporting the militia.

In one email Linda showed me, a former customer vowed never to patronize the Narrows again.

“That’s a nice one,” she said. “I’ve been called a terrorist, everything.”

The accusations are frustrating to Linda, not only because she insists they’re based on misinformation — “I don’t donate anything, I can’t afford it,” she said — but because she also can’t afford to discriminate against paying customers.

“I can’t go up to every person who comes in here and ask who they’re with and say I’m not going to serve them,” she said, pointing to a bakery in Portland that infamously refused to bake a cake for a gay couple in 2013. 

“Now they’re out of business,” she said.

Amid the throngs of reporters who have poured in from the refuge this week, Surber said she’s only waited on two actual protesters and “they seem to be really nice.”

Surber, who has worked at the Narrows for about two years, said she’s been intercepting angry phone calls and wishes she could intercept her bosses’ emails too.

“I really don’t take it personally, but these guys are taking it personally because it’s their business,” Surber said. “Anytime I get a demanding, hateful phone call I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry I have no time to talk to you about this, I hope you have a really great day’ and then I’ll hang up on them. I’m just not gonna feed into this.”

The Gainers aren’t the only ones who’ve suffered backlash over their perceived support of the occupiers.

Local eye doctor Jennifer Keady reportedly received calls for a boycott of her practice after she and her children were interviewed by a couple of news networks during a family visit to the refuge. Keady and her husband, Forrest, had taken their two sons to check out the occupation on Monday — because schools were closed — and when asked for her opinion, she told one reporter she was “against the overreach of federal government.”

“We didn’t go out there and tell them, ‘We’re bringing our guns and we’re standing with you.’ We just wanted to educate ourselves and know, are they looking to do harm?” Forrest Keady said during a meeting held at the county courthouse on Wednesday.

“It was disheartening and sad to see that certain community members twisted that, turned that, went to social media, and made my wife out to be the bad person.”

The fighting showcased by the Facebook group reflects clear divisions emerging within Harney County; between townspeople and country dwellers, and between ranchers and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which owns 75 percent of the county’s 10,000-plus square miles.

Both the ranchers and the BLM agents are crucial to the county’s economy, but they fall on either side of the land use debate. Many ranchers have expressed gratitude to Ammon Bundy and his group for drawing attention to what they consider federal overreach of land-use regulations. But the occupiers’ demands — that the federal government cede control of the Malheur wildlife refuge to Harney County — threaten the livelihoods of the county residents who work for the Bureau of Land Management.

Since the self-described militia arrived, however, threats have been lobbed in all directions — and not all of them have been virtual.

SLIDESHOW – Armed militia standoff in Oregon >>>

Harney County Sheriff David Ward listens to concerns during a community meeting at the Harney County fairgrounds Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Burns, Ore.  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Families of several local law enforcement officers left Harney County last week after they were reportedly followed to their homes. Sheriff David Ward told Oregon Public Broadcasting he’s received emailed death threats from out of state, and at a community meeting Wednesday, Ward said his wife left town after her tires were slashed. It’s unclear who is behind these acts of intimidation.

Surber said Friday that she thinks tensions have subsided a bit, at least on Facebook, since the meeting. Confronting one another face to face, residents discovered that many actually share mixed feelings about the occupation.

“I really believe it’s 50-50 now,” Surber said. “There’s people that are totally against it and there’s people that are kind of riding the fence, like, ‘Yeah, they’re doing a good thing but they’ve not done it the right way.’”

One thing almost everyone seemed to agree on was the need for a community-wide social media detox. Many of those who spoke began by proposing a ban on Facebook — to resounding applause.