MAGA World Is Splintering
As early as 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, just as the mob was taking over the Capitol building, claims that antifa had “infiltrated” the group started to go viral on Twitter. The far-right blog The Gateway Pundit insisted that a whole busload of “Antifa thugs” was on the scene. Others claimed that a well-known figure in the QAnon movement, Jake Angeli, was a “paid actor” and a secret liberal supporter of Black Lives Matter, or they labeled random photos of members of the crowd “ANTIFA supporters dressed in MAGA clothing.” By the evening, the theory had been picked up by several Republican members of Congress, including Representatives Paul Gosar of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, and Matt Gaetz of Florida. (None of these representatives’ offices returned a request for comment.)
The theory is false. There is no credible evidence of involvement by antifa, which is not an organized group and has been responsible for very little violence, while Gray and numerous other known MAGA figures actually were involved in the insurrection. But empirical reality notwithstanding, the antifa story has become a dividing line within the MAGA world this week—and a telling symbol of its internal upheaval.
After the story took off, Facebook added an overlay to the post, labeling it “false information”—but it was still shared on the platform more than 90,000 times, according to CrowdTangle. A Facebook spokesperson told me that the company was “reducing distribution” of several claims about antifa, though it is not removing them. This was a step further than Twitter: Currently, Twitter users who search for antifa are presented with a text box informing them that the group wasn’t responsible for Wednesday’s events, but beyond that, it is unclear whether Twitter has done anything to slow the spread of the conspiracy theory. (The company has not returned a request for comment.)
Conspiracy theories collide online as Parler goes dark
In a public Telegram group chat with roughly 16,000 members, one user called Miguel urged supporters of President Donald Trump to return to DC to push baseless claims that the November vote was stolen from the president. "Guys, every Patriot to the White House on January 21st to protest election fraud," the user posted to the Parler Lifeboat chat, referring to the day after the inauguration. Minutes later, another member using the name Michelle, chimed in to wave off fellow MAGA fans: "It's [a] set up."
The exchange and countless others like it represent a collision of conspiracy theories in the fevered world of pro-Trump supporters. QAnon is reported by some online observers to be a "psyop" designed to discredit conservatives even though the crazy conspiracy theory, which imagines that Trump is battling Satanic sex traffickers, prompts many supporters to attend his rallies. Protests organized to challenge the results of the election are traps laid by antifa, a loosely grouped anti-fascist movement, some conservatives say.
Anonymous chatter on social media includes discussions that new MAGA protests are actually being organized by antifa or Democrats. One red-and-yellow flyer posted on Facebook, Twitter and Parler, as well as online forums and messaging apps, calls for an armed march on Capitol Hill and all state capitols on the afternoon of Jan. 17. "When Democracy is destroyed, refuse to be silenced," declares the poster, which included an image of the Statue of Liberty.
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