USA TODAY US Edition
Tracing a conspiracy theory to House floor
Murmurs of antifa began on fringe social media
While much of America watched a mob of Trump supporters overrun police and break into the halls of Congress Wednesday afternoon, members of the far right chatted up an imaginary narrative of what was really going on.
After weeks of planting the idea, dozens of extremists used social media to promote an idea with no basis in reality – that the people besieging the Capitol were actually far-left agitators disguised as Trump supporters.
The trickle of claims became a flood in a matter of hours. It started in secretive corners of the web such as 4chan, but tweets and articles from more and more mainstream conservative news sites followed. It began spiking around 1 p.m., just after rioters started breaching barriers outside the Capitol. Soon, Fox News personalities were sharing the same speculation that circulated among believers in the discredited QAnon conspiracy theory.
By 10:15 p.m., the “false flag” story reached the House floor that rioters had invaded earlier in the day. Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida told his shaken colleagues in a speech: “They were masquerading as Trump supporters and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.”
USA TODAY worked with experts in disinformation and examined a variety of social and news media to trace how one false claim went from the fringe to Washington’s seat of power. The review found predictions of a Jan. 6 disruption by antifa, a loose collection of far-left-leaning “anti-fascists” who battle the far right, going back as far as December.
The messages came more frequently as the event drew closer. Then, when the mob attacked the Capitol – inviting instant condemnation from virtually all corners – the idea of an antifa “false flag” operation exploded exponentially.
In fact, the analysis shows, members of Congress were using language parroting extremist groups and platforms just minutes before the siege began. In that case, the false claims alleged massive vote rigging.
Extensive reporting by USA TODAY and other media organizations has identified dozens of people who forced their way into the Capitol, all of whom showed in their social media accounts or said in interviews that they were avid Trump supporters. These included Ashli Babbitt, the woman fatally shot by police.
The speed with which the antifa conspiracy theory crystalized Jan. 6 underscores the close alignment in messaging between extremists and some members of the institution that was under attack.
“It’s kind of shocking how quickly it got to the Congress floor,” said Kayla Gogarty, a senior researcher at Media Matters for America who studies misinformation. “Pretty much immediately after the insurrection happened, we were seeing claims and images purportedly showing that it was antifa.”
It’s impossible to establish whether the false flag theory directly spread from one individual to members of Congress or whether, instead, like-minded people had the same idea simultaneously. Conspiracy theorists also claimed left-wing groups were secretly behind the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that drew white supremacists and turned deadly.
However, some researchers said last Wednesday’s chain of intertwined discussions showed a striking progression.
Rhys Leahy, a senior research assistant at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics, watched the scene unfold in real time on the social messaging platform Telegram, which draws legions of Trump supporters.
From her home computer, Leahy was monitoring a network of 300 right-wing extremist Telegram channels as Trump called on the crowd to march on the Capitol. She saw mention of antifa jump from a steady stream of a dozen Telegram posts per hour to more than 10 times that. Videos from the scene, purporting to show people wearing antifa symbols, were coming from dozens of accounts, she said.
By 7 p.m., Fox hosts Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were repeat
“It’s kind of shocking how quickly it got to the Congress floor.”
Kayla Gogarty A senior researcher at Media Matters for America
ing the false claim that antifa agitators were storming the Capitol, booking guests like Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who spread the rumor on national television.
“Then, a few hours later, we heard in Congress representatives repeating it,” Leahy said.
“Seeing how that moves through the information ecosystem from these very fringe conspiracy sites on Telegram or 8chan or 8kun or 4chan to being in the halls of Congress within hours, while it’s still under attack: It’s crazy and it’s disturbing.”
Long before people gathered for the president’s Wednesday speech, Trump supporters shared rumors the event would be infiltrated by antifa.
“We’ve seen the same rhetoric around antifa before,” Gogarty said. “The right has cast them as the boogeyman. It’s easy to point the finger at them.”
On Dec. 31, a Parler user posted a message, since viewed some 74,000 times, claiming that antifa would be at the Jan. 6 march in Washington wearing MAGA hats backward so as to recognize one another. The Parler post included a photograph of a Nov. 10 tweet with the claim, suggesting the same antifa-indisguise ruse had been used in the past.
On Jan. 4, a 4chan user wrote, “Only violence will come from antifa.” Another wrote, “Man says DC police are escorting antifa into DC.” On Jan. 5, a 4chan user wrote, “Obvious antifa posing as Trump Supporters.”
The claims continued as the riot gained steam on Wednesday. A 4chan user wrote, “those are probably disguised antifa” at 1:22 p.m., as protesters reached the Capitol building and the confrontation with police began. “I see ANTIFA!” wrote another at 1:47pm. It quickly escalated. Between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., the number of Parler posts mentioning “antifa” jumped from 800 per hour to 3,000 per hour, a USA TODAY analysis of data from the Social Media Analysis Toolkit found. On 4chan, a message board known for extreme content, the term “antifa” peaked at nearly 400 mentions per hour at 1 p.m., suggesting the discussion then jumped from 4chan to Parler or other platforms as the pro-Trump crowd approached the Capitol.
At 2:27 p.m., a Parler user shared, “Anyone suspect antifa/BLM are disguised as them?” Around the same time, @PatriotImmigrant24 wrote on Parler, “How do you know who these people are? Be careful what information you are spreading as #antifa has already said they will be dressed as Trump supporters today.”
A minute later, @intheMatrixxx, an influential QAnon supporter now suspended from Twitter, shared a video of the mob with the claim, “#antifa wearing #maga hats Protestors have entered the Capitol.” It racked up more than 1,200 retweets.
At 2:36 p.m., the tweet was shared on Parler and, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., Parler carried 7,300 mentions of “antifa,” up from 2,000 the hour before.
On Twitter, the antifa claim was also spreading widely, cementing itself in right-wing media.
At 3:05 p.m. the theory started reaching a truly wide audience. Ingraham, from Fox News, tweeted a video of rioters: “These vandals look like they could be straight out of Portland or Seattle,” alluding to two antifa strongholds. The thought racked up 4,000 retweets and 11,000 likes. Ingraham also brought up the claim on her television show later.
The assertions kept echoing at a rapid pace.
At 3:21 p.m., user @SOPDN1 shared photos in a post that’s since been deleted of the rioters inside the Capitol with the message, “Coordinated antifa theater,” gaining more than 2,500 retweets including from conservative journalist Melissa Mackenzie, who shared it with her 56,000 followers.
At 3:24 p.m., the Daily Wire’s Candace Owens tweeted, “Call it a hunch, but my guess is there are still ANTIFA thugs in the mix,” which was shared more than 30,000 times.
And at 5:02 p.m., conservative author Paul Sperry tweeted that a source had told him “at least 1 ‘bus load’ of antifa thugs infiltrated peaceful Trump demonstrators,” gaining nearly 67,000 retweets. Sperry’s claim was soon picked up by right-wing news source Gateway Pundit.
Then, shortly before 10 p.m., Brooks, the Alabama congressman, shared a link to a now-retracted article from the conservative-leaning Washington Times. The story quoted an unnamed, retired military officer saying a facial recognition firm had identified two antifa activists from news footage of the Capitol mob. The newspaper subsequently apologized to the company and, in a correction, said it “did not identify any antifa members.”
Gaetz also shared the antifa claim in his Twitter timeline. Then Gaetz gave his fiery floor speech about the matter. It was met with groans and incredulity from many in the chamber.
Rep. Jackie Speier of California, a Democrat, said in an email to USA TODAY that Brooks’ words were an effort “to spread misinformation and try to blame others for the assault on our government.” She called it “deplorable.”
“Until Congressman Brooks, Gaetz and the rest of them accept the truth and correct their lies, we will continue to face the death spiral of democracy as described by Sen. McConnell,” said Speier, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s speech Wednesday denouncing lawmakers’ efforts to reject state electoral votes.
Gaetz’s and Brooks’ offices did not respond to a request for comment.
In the very moments before the siege began, some lawmakers espoused beliefs prevalent in extremist circles since the election.
The business of the day was whether to accept the presidential electoral votes presented by all 50 states.
Just before the House chamber was evacuated, Rep. Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, was talking about one particular conspiracy theory: that voting systems made by the software company Dominion had been hacked to change votes. Gosar told the House around 2:15 p.m. that he had been given “no access to the Dominion voting machines with a documented history of enabling fraud through its now discredited adjudication system, a system that literally allows one person to change tens of thousands of votes in mere minutes.”
In the first week of January, “Dominion” was highly popular on both Parler and Telegram, according to data reviewed by USA TODAY and collected by researchers from the University of Bern in Switzerland. The term often appeared with messages contesting the outcome of the Georgia runoff as well as the general election.
The discussion had its beginnings on fringe media in the days just following the election, when mentions of “Dominion” reached a high point.
Dominion is now suing Sidney Powell, a lawyer who worked on Trump’s post-election lawsuits, alleging defamation.
“We’ve seen this happen again and again, honestly, where the misinformation starts on these fringe platforms and makes it all the way to representatives or Trump,” said Gogarty, the Media Matters researcher. “Dominion kind of followed the same trajectory as a lot of the other election misinformation, where it quickly spread from fringe platforms and Facebook groups. Then far-right media personalities picked it up, and then quickly it got to Trump’s team.”
But misinformation and conspiracy theories don’t always travel in a straight line that ends with Congress or President Trump repeating a claim, Gogarty explains.
“It’s also a big feedback loop,” she said. “Trump and some of the GOP and Trump’s lawyers will put out little nuggets that’ll get picked up by right-wing media that will start spreading within social media.”
That affirmation from politicians and public figures strengthens the claim, Gogarty said – in turn vindicating those on the fringes to continue creating and reseeding these conspiracy theories and narratives.