Only hours after a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building in an attack on the country’s rule of law and democratic process, right-wing media and Trump-aligned government officials had already begun spreading unverified rumors and misinformation in an attempt to direct blame away from the president — and their own audience. Instead, a new narrative emerged that antifa was responsible.
Despite well-documented white nationalist Trump supporters livestreaming themselves breaking into the Capitol building alongside hundreds of others brandishing MAGA paraphernalia and displaying their zealotry for the president, top-rated hosts on Fox News, Fox Business and other right-wing outlets and media activists all promoted baseless allegations that “antifa” leftists had somehow infiltrated the protests and caused the violent unrest.
After months of fanning conspiracy theories around election fraud and defending President Donald Trump’s increasingly anti-democratic actions, right-wing media almost immediately contorted the facts of Wednesday’s pro-Trump riot to shift blame toward anyone but themselves, the president or the far-right extremists among his supporters.
All three of Fox News’ primetime hosts ― Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham ― featured baseless suggestions on Wednesday that “antifa” or outside forces could have been involved in the chaos. Carlson hosted a right-wing YouTuber who brought up the claim, which he did not question. (Carlson also suggested this past year’s anti-racism protests contributed to the riot, and that conservative thought was somehow under attack.) Ingraham alluded to “antifa” during an afternoon interview, and during her primetime show claimed without evidence that those who stormed the building were “likely not all Trump supporters.” Hannity similarly blamed outside influence and defended Trump supporters, demanding to know “who the agitators were.” None discussed that Trump had directly incited his followers to march toward the Capitol minutes before the chaos at a rally where he vowed to “never concede” the presidential election, which he falsely claims to have won.
The downplaying and deflection of the violence at the Capitol, which resulted in one woman killed in a shooting and three dead in medical emergencies, prevailed throughout right-wing media. On far-right channel Newsmax, which has increased its ratings since the election as it promoted pro-Trump conspiracy theories, host Greg Kelly claimed without evidence that “antifa and outside agitators could be involved in all of this.”
On the House floor Wednesday night, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) amplified those claims while citing a false report from right-wing media outlet Washington Times. The outlet cited facial recognition company XRVision to make false claims that two of the people in the Capitol building had been identified as antifa supporters, but that claim ― which Washington Times provided no evidence for in its report ― was contradicted by XRVision itself, which told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that the rioters it identified were actually far-right extremists and it had demanded a retraction.
“Our attorney has contacted the Washington Times and has instructed them to ‘Cease and Desist’ from any claims regarding the sourcing of XRVision analytics, retract their current claims, and publish an apology,” reads a statement on founder Yaacov Apelbaum’s personal blog.
The XRVision facial recognition company is also a questionable source to begin with, as Apelbaum has a history of posting conspiracy theories about president-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, as well as about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and billionaire George Soros. One post is a parody of the Edgar Allen Poe poem “The Raven” rewritten as an attack on the Biden family. Tech news outlet One Zero media also noted that XRVision’s claims about its purported facial recognition technology are difficult to verify and that the company has not submitted its algorithms to industry-standard testing.
Another source for the groundless allegation that “antifa” supporters were active at the riot came from pro-Trump lawyer and QAnon conspiracy theorist Lin Wood, who tweeted a picture on Wednesday of what he claimed were left-wing militants. In reality, the photo showed well-known white nationalist Matthew Heimbach and a highly visible QAnon supporter who is known as “Q Shaman.” Twitter suspended Wood’s account following his stream of disinformation about the riot.
In addition to blaming “antifa” for the riot, many right-wing pundits have tried to portray the riot as the action of a few bad apples rather than the result of Trump hosting an anti-democratic rally and inciting his supporters to take action against elected officials. Others concocted false equivalences or tried to frame the riot as an understandable reaction to their perceived injustice. Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, to whom Trump awarded the Medal of Freedom last year, told listeners “we’re supposed to be horrified” about the riots before falsely claiming President Barack Obama had tried to launch a coup against Trump and referencing the American Revolution to imply he believed that political violence was sometimes necessary.
Fox News host Pete Hegsgeth on Thursday also framed the riot as a response to Republican fears of widespread election fraud ― which are baseless and have been fomented by Fox News ― while telling audiences to disbelieve what they clearly witnessed less than 24 hours before.
“It wasn’t because Donald Trump gave a speech and then told people to do something at the Capitol,” Hegsgeth said. “That’s not what happened.”