To anyone watching television Wednesday, the identity of the violent mob that overtook the U.S. Capitol was unmistakable: Overzealous supporters of President Donald Trump. What with all the Trump flags, MAGA hats and attire carrying the Republican’s campaign insignia, their loyalties were obvious.
Yet later that night, as a Congress returned to work, Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz attempted to sow doubt.
Citing a loosely sourced report from the Washington Times, a conservative news outlet based in the nation’s capital, Gaetz pronounced from the House floor that there was “pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company showing 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.”
By Thursday morning, however, the account Gaetz shared with his colleagues and viewers had completely unraveled. XRVision, the facial recognition company cited in the Times story, told multiple news outlets that it was untrue.
The company’s technology had actually identified two members of neo-Nazi organizations and a QAnon supporter among the pro-Trump mob, XRVision told Buzzfeed. Company representatives asked the Times to retract and apologize for the story. By Thursday afternoon, it was removed from the web.
By then, the damage was done. Gaetz’s five-minute floor speech, posted to his Facebook page, was shared 6,600 times on Facebook. Conservative news outlets published Gaetz’s remarks as fact. Fox News commentator Lou Dobbs tweeted it out to his audience, adding, “I certainly hope and pray Congressman Matt Gaetz will be recognized by his party for the leader he is.” It continues to circulate online.
Gaetz, who represents Fort Walton Beach, did not answer phone calls Thursday afternoon and his office did not respond to a request for comment or an interview. Video of his floor speech remains posted to his Facebook and Twitter pages, where it continues to rack up hundreds of thousands of views. Nor has he deleted a tweet sharing the now removed Times story.
The episode illustrates how conspiracies and falsehoods in the Trump era have moved from internet message boards to the mainstream with alarming ease, said Claire Wardle, the U.S. director of First Draft News, an organization that tracks misinformation online.
Here’s the typical path: An unverified internet rumor is shared and picked up by the fringes of right-wing media. From there, it’s repeated by conservative media outlets that reach Republican voters and politicians. Those politicians then regurgitate the falsehood on Fox News or Newsmax — or in this case, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives — where it is then picked up by other, sometimes mainstream, news outlets.
“This is more than just misinformation,” Wardle said. “There is an alternative information system that many people in the Capitol have been part of for four years.”
It wasn’t long after the mob breached the Capitol doors that Trump supporters and other online sleuths began suggesting that the entire episode was a false flag event perpetrated by antifa, short for “anti-fascist,” a broad coalition of activists often blamed by conservatives for violent attacks.
Several viral posts singled out a man in horns and face paint and asserted that he was an antifa-aligned infiltrator. Not so. That man, Jake Angeli, is a well-known supporter of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory who goes by the moniker, “Q Shaman.” He is a supporter of the president who often appears at pro-Trump events, but also instigates from the sidelines at protests for social justice causes. He recently was photographed with Trump layer Rudy Giuliani.
In an exchange on Twitter captured by a reporter for The Daily Beast, Angeli responded to pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood after the attorney suggested he was with antifa.
“Mr. Wood. I am not antifa or (black lives matter),” Angeli’s wrote. “I’m a Qanon & digital soldier. My name is Jake & I marched with the police & fought against BLM & ANTIFA in PHX.”
Similar viral posts linking the pro-Trump insurgents to other organizations similarly crumbled under further scrutiny by fact-checkers.
Gaetz’s remarks came during the certification of former Vice President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory, a ceremonial process that was interrupted by the take over of Congress. At the time, the House was debating the Arizona election results, which Gaetz and other Republicans in Congress were contesting in a last-ditch attempt to overturn the election for Trump.
Cable networks carried much of the debate live and it streamed online for millions of Americans to watch. During his term at the mic, Gaetz prefaced his comments by stating, “I don’t know if the reports are true,” but that didn’t stop the conspiracy from spreading. SMAT, a tool that measures the volume of tweets over a given period of time, showed a dramatic spike in online chatter mentioning “antifa” Wednesday night around the time of Gaetz’s remarks.
As he concluded, his Republican colleagues showered Gaetz in raucous applause.