Radical conservative activists and allies of President Donald Trump quickly began to spread disinformation about the Capitol riots Wednesday, claiming with no evidence that pro-Trump protesters photographed breaking into congressional chambers were anti-fascist activists.
L. Lin Wood, a lawyer behind multiple failed lawsuits seeking to overturn the election results who has also pushed QAnon-related conspiracy theories, tweeted photos of the break-in alongside photos of a pair of notorious American neo-Nazis, claiming that the photos offered "indisputable photographic evidence that antifa violently broke into Congress today."
The claims are typical of many that arise during major news events and particularly violent acts; fringe communities often label them "false flag" attacks meant to push a liberal political agenda. Other events that have been called false-flag attacks include the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
Almost immediately after reports emerged that a pro-Trump mob, urged on by a speech from the president Wednesday, had broken into the Capitol, efforts to flip the blame began. Televangelist Mark Burns, a longtime Trump supporter, tweeted, "This is NOT a Trump supporter...This is a staged #Antifa attack," along with a photo from the break-in of a popular QAnon follower, Jake Angeli, who is known as the "Q Shaman" for attending protests wearing face paint and an elaborate horned fur costume. Trump's son Eric liked Burns' tweet.
Tweets of the same picture of Angeli on the House dais were also shared by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who falsely added that the rioters are "not Trump supporters." A similar viral tweet, with thousands of retweets, claimed that there was "at least one bus load of Antifa," a false conspiracy theory once invoked by Trump himself.
About 7,000 posts on Twitter referred to antifa followers' "posing" as Trump rioters without evidence, according toan NBC News analysis. Some of the most popular tweets had thousands of likes and retweets.
The rumors also spread on Fox News and Fox Business Network. Lou Dobbs and Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., discussed the possibility of antifa instigators' infiltrating the pro-Trump mob. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made the same claim, telling Fox News host Martha MacCallum that it was unclear who was instigating the riots. "A lot of it is the antifa folks," Palin said, citing "pictures" she had seen. Laura Ingraham, one of the channel’s primetime hosts, spent much of the hour of her show suggesting without evidence that the Trump protesters had been infiltrated by antifa. The only evidence she provided was that some protesters wore helmets and knee pads, which she said she hadn’t seen before at Trump rallies.
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Newsmax, a far-right cable news channel that has staunchly supported Trump and spread a variety of misinformation about the election, also blamed the violence on antifa.
Trump has led the charge against antifa, a network of loosely organized radical groups that use direct action to fight the far right and what they characterize as fascism. Trump has repeatedly amplified unfounded claims that antifa and other outside agitators would loot and destroy "white neighborhoods," and he has used them as a recurring threat in fundraising efforts.
On Wednesday night when Congress reconvened to resume the certification of President-elect Joe Biden's win, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., used his time to also float that antifa was behind the violence.
“I don’t know if the reports are true, but The Washington Times has just reported some pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company that some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters, they were masquerading as Trump supporters, and in fact were members of the violent terrorist group antifa,” Gaetz said.