At 1:51 p.m. on January 6, a right-wing radio host named Michael D. Brown wrote on Twitter that agitators had invaded the United States Capitol – and immediately speculated who was the real culprit.
“[Apoiadores do movimento] Antifa [antifascistas] or Black Lives Matter or other insurgents might be disguised as Trump supporters, “Brown wrote.” Listen, man, haven’t you ever heard of ‘psychological operations’?
Only 13,000 people follow Brown on the social network, but his tweet caught the attention of another conservative guru: Todd Herman, who hosted Rush Limbaugh’s national radio show as a guest.
Minutes later, he repeated Brown’s baseless statement to the crowd of Limbaugh listeners: “Probably not Trump supporters who would do this. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, they do. Isn’t isn’t it? “
What transpired over the next 12 hours illustrated the speed and scale of the right-wing disinformation machine to catch a lie that served its political interests and quickly spread to a receptive audience.
The week-long fiction about the stolen election that former President Donald Trump threw at his millions of supporters had set the stage for a new and equally false iteration: Leftist agitators were responsible for the attack on Capitol Hill .
In fact, the mob that invaded the citadel of American democracy that day were Trump’s henchmen, determined to prevent Congress from confirming their electoral defeat. Arrests and subsequent investigations found no evidence that people who identify with the “anti-fa” movement, an informal group of anti-fascist activists, were involved in the insurgency.
But as Americans watched live footage of the rebels – wearing “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) caps and carrying Trump campaign flags – storming the Capitol, prompted minutes earlier by the president still who falsely denounced a rigged election and urged his supporters. fighting for justice, history has been rewritten in real time.
Within hours, a narrative built on rumors and party guesswork had reached the megaphones of pro-Trump politicians on Twitter. By the end of the day, Laura Ingraham and Sarah Palin had shared it with millions of Fox News viewers, and Florida MP Matt Gaetz stood up in the looted chamber of the House and claimed that many rebels “were members of the violent anti-terrorist group”.
Nearly two months after the attack, the claim that the antifa participated has been repeatedly rejected by federal officials, but has taken hold as a gospel among Trump’s hard-line supporters, by voters and consecrated by elected Republican Party.
More than half of Trump voters in a poll at Suffolk University and USA Today said the turmoil was “primarily an antifa-inspired attack.” During last week’s Senate hearings on security breaches on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin repeated the lie that “bogus pro-Trump protesters” are fueling the violence.
For those who were hoping that Trump’s ‘don’t believe what you see’ tactic might run out of steam after his defeat, the entry of the antifa conspiracy into the mainstream is a sign that the truth remains a variable concept among its followers. most loved.
Bolstered by a powerful right-wing media network that had spent eight months publicizing Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud, pro-Trump Republicans succeeded in distorting the reality of their constituents, displaying outright grudge while trying to minimize violent agitation by their own supporters. .
If anyone was responsible for the desecration of the Capitol, Johnson said in a radio interview as the violence unfolded that day, “I would really ask you if you are a real Trump supporter or a real Tory. “
A lie gets more likes
A review of media activity shortly after the January 6 riot reveals how the right-wing news machine promoted fiction, first online, then on radio and cable TV, on the presumed involvement of the antifa.
The plot gained new momentum after the Washington Times right-wing published an article shortly before 2:30 p.m. claiming that a facial recognition company had identified antifa activists in the crowd on Capitol Hill.
The newspaper corrected the story less than 24 hours later when its claims were quashed – but not before the story had a huge impact. The report ended up garnering 360,000 likes and shares on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle, a platform tool used to analyze social media.
From 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., lies about antifa were mentioned about 8,700 times on cable TV, social media and online news channels, according to media collection firm Zignal Labs. “Remember, the antifa openly planned to dress up as Trump supporters and wreak havoc today,” a tweet said that received 41,000 likes and shares.
Snopes, the online fact-checking channel, had previously exposed the fake antifa narrative, but its report has only garnered 306 likes and shares on Twitter so far – an indication of how difficult it is for fact-checking initiatives to be taken. of magnitude against the original lie. .
Gaetz, the pro-Trump congressman, was a super-broadcaster of the Washington Times article; his Facebook post received 27,000 interactions. And Ingraham quoted the article on Twitter and on his prime-time show on Fox News.
By comparison, a BuzzFeed News article that refuted the Washington Times report had only 18,000 interactions on Facebook.
Rumors need a receptive audience to spread, and Trump supporters have long been trained to accept a baseless claim that the antifa – tirelessly portrayed by the then president as a dangerous terrorist group – had provoked violence, not his fellow MAGA fans.
In May, Trump announced that the United States would declare the antifa a national terrorist group, even though it lacks the authority to do so. Lies about buses and planes laden with antifa activists traveling across the country to sow violence have become common talk on right-wing websites, even leading some Americans to seek police assistance.
During the first presidential debate in September, seen by 73 million people, Trump said: “Someone has to do something against the antifa and the left” – same response, Trump did not want to condemn the Proud Boys, a group extreme right wing that approves of violence.
That drumbeat meant that the idea of left-wing activists disturbing the Electoral College to upset Trump might not have sounded bizarre to supporters of the President – even those in Congress.
Hours after the attack, Alabama Republican Representative Mo Brooks, who spoke to Trump at the rally that preceded the Capitol Riot, promoted the false allegations about the anti-Fa movement at the national television.
“We had some warnings that there may be antifa material masked by Trump supporters ahead of the attack on Capitol Hill,” Brooks told Fox Business presenter Lou Dobbs. He reiterated his baseless claim the next morning in a Twitter post that was shared nearly 19,000 times.
“There is emerging evidence that many of the attackers on Capitol Hill were fascist antifas, not Trump supporters,” Brooks wrote, without providing any evidence. “Time will reveal the truth. Do not make hasty judgments.”
In an interview last week, Brooks admitted he did not verify his information before making it public. But he insisted that several members of Congress – whom he did not identify – warned him of an antifa presence in Washington, which led him to sleep in his congressional office for two nights. before January 6.
Today, Brooks says the role of antifa and supporters of the Black Live Matter movement “appears to be relatively small compared to the roles of more militant elements in other groups.”
He said in the interview that he had “very often warned that the information we receive is incomplete, preliminary” – details that were not mentioned in his arson tweets at the time.
Ingraham, who told Fox News viewers about the “antifa supporters” in the riot, later shared on Twitter that the Washington Times article she was citing had been dropped; it did not emit a correction in the air.
Herman, Limbaugh’s guest who speculated on the antifa, wrote in an email that “it was clear that a large group of Trump supporters entered the Capitol and attacked people.” But he went on to wrongly claim that anti-fa activists planned to emulate Trump supporters.
Of the 290 people who were reported in the attack, at least 27 are known to have ties to far-right groups such as the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys. Others have ties to the White Confederacy and supremacist entities, or are clear supporters of the QAnon conspiracy movement. The vast majority expressed a fervent belief that Trump was the real winner of the election.
On January 8, the FBI said there was no evidence that antifa supporters, known to aggressively speak out against white racist protests, participated in the Capitol Riot.
And on January 13, Congressman Kevin McCarthy, House Republican Minority Leader, said during Trump’s impeachment trial: “Some say the riots were caused by antifa. There is absolutely no proof of this, and the Conservatives should be the first to say it. “
But the next day, the arrest of a protester named John Sullivan sparked a new epidemic in right-wing media over antifa and unrest.
Sullivan called himself an “activist” from Utah and CNN mistakenly presented him as a “leftist activist” when he appeared on the network on January 6 – he had sold videos to CNN and to other channels showing the shooting of Ashli Babbitt, a dead protester inside the Capitol.
The Gateway Pundit conspiracy website, along with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, used Sullivan’s arrest to once again blame the antifa in posts that had tens of thousands of likes and shares on Facebook and Twitter.
In fact, Sullivan was someone who caught the eye and whose politics fluctuated and apparently changed as the protest he was attending at the time went on, according to activists in Seattle, Salt Lake City and Portland, Oregon, who had issued warnings about him months before. of the turmoil of the Capitol.
On January 8, the founder of Black Lives Matter in Utah said that Sullivan “never was and never will be” a member of the group – “John is not affiliated with any organization,” Steven Kiersh said Friday, Sullivan’s lawyer.
But the facts about Sullivan didn’t go as far as the lies.