Just after 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon, Trump supporters in DC for a mass “Stop the Steal” protest began smashing windows and trying to enter the northwest corner of the Capitol Building, outside the House chamber. Some of those observing, clearly uneasy with the violent turn their protest had taken, did the first thing that came to mind: They blamed antifa.
“Antifa, is that antifa? Get them out of there,” one Trump supporter shouted. Within seconds, that baseless allegation rippled out through the crowd as others repeated the accusation—a real-time, real-world example of disinformation traveling and spreading.
And in the hours since that moment of cognitive dissonance took place, the effort to blame antifa for Wednesday’s insurrection has grown louder. First it was boosted online by far-right extremists and QAnon supporters, and then by Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Paul Gosar and Rep. Matt Gaetz, high-profile conservative figures like Candace Owens and Sarah Palin, and finally by right-wing media outlets.
This effort took place despite images of the attack being broadcast across the globe, clearly showing those breaking into the Capitol were wearing Trump hats and shirts, waving Trump flags, and telling any reporter who would listen about their support for the president.
A standout example that the people involved in the attack on Capitol Hill yesterday were pro-Trump was Jake Angeli, the bare-chested Arizona man who posed for selfies inside the House chamber dressed in a buffalo horn helmet.
Angeli is a well-known figure within the QAnon community who goes by the nickname “Q Shaman,” but within hours of his picture being broadcast around the globe as the face of the attack, far-right extremists began throwing him under the bus, claiming he was in fact an antifa operative.
This was based on a picture claiming to show Angeli at a Black Lives Matter protest, but the image has been flagged by Twitter for being manipulated.
“Before yesterday, no one ever even attempted to deny that Jake Angeli, the Q Shaman, was a QAnon follower and Trump supporter. He was known in the community,” Travis View, a conspiracy theory expert tweeted.
“But the moment his existence becomes inconvenient to Trumpworld, people suddenly decide, en masse, he's ‘BLM’ and ‘antifa.’”
Others online claimed two people standing next to Angeli inside the Capitol were antifa activists, based on the incorrect assumption that they were the same two people in a picture published by Philly Antifa. Not only were they different people, but the people on the Philly Antifa website were actually neo-Nazis.
Adding fuel to the fire was a claim made in an article in the conservative Washington Times that was shared more than 83,000 times on Facebook. The article cites a facial recognition company that, according to the Times, claimed two Capitol protesters were antifa activists, even though no evidence was provided to back up that claim.
The facial recognition company, XRVision, issued a statement Thursday, first reported by BuzzFeed, that the paper’s story is completely false. “I don’t know where the Washington Times got that information,” the statement said.
And the claims quickly moved up the right-wing food chain. Just after 5 p.m. Wednesday, while the Capitol was still under attack, Rep. Paul Gosar, the Arizona congressman who’d objected to counting the electoral ballots from his state earlier in the afternoon, said, "This has all the hallmarks of antifa provocation.”
Gosar's tweet linked to a tweet by Stop the Steal organizer Mike Coudrey, who posted a now-deleted video showing footage of Trump supporters smashing a window and entering the Capitol building, along with the caption: “Eyewitness reports that the first individuals who stormed the Capitol where [sic] 'dressed up and had knee pads.’” Again no evidence of this claim was provided.
Once the joint session of Congress resumed, just after 8 p.m., it didn’t take long for the baseless antifa rumors to get an airing inside the chamber.
“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,” Rep. Matt Gaetz said.
Gaetz’s proof for this claim? The baseless Washington Times article.
Gaetz and Gosar had help boosting the antifa conspiracy from Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, who told Lou Dobbs in an interview on Fox News that “there is some indication that fascist antifa elements were involved, that they embedded themselves in the Trump protests.”
And Dobbs’ colleagues on Fox News, including Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, also repeated the lie that antifa was to blame.
Many of the lawmakers who claimed antifa was behind the attack cited a tweet from L. Lin Wood, a pro-Trump lawyer and avowed QAnon supporter whose Twitter account — and a backup account — were permanently deleted late on Wednesday.
Instead, Wood has moved to the right-wing Twitter alternative Parler, where he has begun calling for the execution of Vice President Mike Pence.
But not everyone on the right was willing to disavow the Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol.
The self-described “chairman” of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, who was arrested earlier this week and banned from attending the DC event, praised Angeli, calling him “a hero” and giving him the group’s honorary salute of "Proud of Your Boy!"
And of course, let’s not forget Trump himself, who posted a video on Twitter and Facebook as the riot was taking place, in which he embraced the people inside the Capitol as his own.
“We love you. You're very special,” Trump said, seconds after telling them to “go home.”
While the concerted effort by those who still support Trump to distance themselves from the attack on the Capitol was surprising in its speed and breadth, experts say the blame-shifting was bound to happen.
“The fact that QAnon influencers and the far-right in general immediately jumped on the false flag narrative is not very surprising, but it should expose them for what they are,” Aoife Gallagher, an analyst who tracks QAnon at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), told VICE News.
“As the world watched, we saw well-known neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and members of the QAnon community storm the Capitol. We saw it with our own eyes, and yet their immediate reaction is to deny responsibility for their actions and attempt to gaslight the public.”