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Trac­ing a con­spir­acy the­ory to House floor

Mur­murs of an­tifa be­gan on fringe so­cial me­dia

- Aleszu Ba­jak U.S. News · Social Media · Politics · United States of America · Donald Trump · Twentieth Century Fox Film Company Ltd. · Republican Party (United States) · Republican · Matt Gaetz · Florida · Washington · Julius Caesar · Charlottesville · Charlottesville · Virginia · George Washington University · George Washington · Washington University in St. Louis · George Washington University · Sean Hannity · Alabama · Alaska · Sarah Palin · 8chan · Twitter · Portland · Seattle · California · Democratic Party (United States) · Mitch McConnell · Arizona · The Milton Bradley Company · Laura Ingraham · Mo Brooks · Brooks · Mackenzie · The Daily Wire · Candace Owens · Sperry, Iowa · Gateway · Jackie Speier · Speyer · Democrat · McConnell · Paul Gosar

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.

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