Conspiracy theories paint fraudulent reality of Jan. 6 riot
Millions of Americans watched the events in Washington last Jan. 6 unfold on live television. Police officers testified to the violence and mayhem. Criminal proceedings in open court detailed what happened.
Yet the hoaxes, conspiracy theories and attempts to rewrite history persist, muddying the public’s understanding of what actually occurred during the most sustained attack on the seat of American democracy since the War of 1812.
By excusing former President Donald Trump of responsibility, minimizing the mob’s violence and casting the rioters as martyrs, falsehoods about the insurrection aim to deflect blame for Jan. 6 while sustaining Trump’s unfounded claims about the free and fair election in 2020 that he lost.
Spread by politicians, broadcast by cable news pundits and amplified by social media, the falsehoods are a stark reminder of how many Americans may no longer trust their own institutions or their own eyes.
Several different conspiracy theories have emerged in the year since the insurrection, according to an analysis of online content by media intelligence firm Zignal Labs on behalf of The Associated Press. Unfounded claims that the rioters were members of antifa went viral first, only to be overtaken by a baseless claim blaming FBI operatives. Other theories say the rioters were peaceful and were framed for crimes that never happened.
Conspiracy theories have long lurked in the background of American history, said Dustin Carnahan, a Michigan State University professor who studies political misinformation. But they can become dangerous when they lead people to distrust democracy or to excuse or embrace violence.
“If we’re no longer operating from the same foundation of facts, then it’s going to be a lot harder to have conversations as a country,” Carnahan said. “It will fuel more divisions in our country, and I think that ultimately is the legacy of the misinformation we’re seeing right now.”
An examination of some of the top falsehoods about the Capitol riot and the people who have spread them:
CLAIM: THE RIOTERS WEREN’T TRUMP SUPPORTERS
In fact, many of those who came to the Capitol on Jan. 6 have said — proudly, publicly, repeatedly — that they did so to help the then-president.
Different versions of the claim suggest they were FBI operatives or members of the anti-fascist movement antifa.
“Earlier today, the Capitol was under siege by people who can only be described as antithetical to the MAGA movement,” Laura Ingraham said on her Fox News show the night of Jan. 6, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. “They were likely not all Trump supporters, and there are some reports that antifa sympathizers may have been sprinkled throughout the crowd.”
The next day, Ingraham acknowledged the inaccuracy when she tweeted a link to a story debunking the claim.
Another Fox host, Tucker Carlson, has spread the idea that the FBI orchestrated the riot. He cites as evidence the indictments of some Jan. 6 suspects that mention unindicted co-conspirators, a common legal term that merely refers to suspects who haven’t been charged, and not evidence of undercover agents or informants.
Yet Carlson claimed on his show that “in potentially every single case, they were FBI operatives.”
Carlson is a “main driver” of the idea that Jan. 6 was perpetrated by agents of the government, according to Zignal’s report. It found the claim spiked in October when Carlson released a documentary series about the insurrection.
Members of Congress, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., have helped spread the theories.
“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.
Spokespeople for Carlson and Gaetz say they stand by their claims.
In truth, the rioters are just who they said they were.
One was a recently elected state lawmaker from West Virginia, a Republican Trump supporter named Derrick Evans who resigned following his arrest. Evans streamed video of himself illegally entering the Capitol.
“They’re making an announcement now saying if Pence betrays us you better get your mind right because we’re storming the building,” Evans said on the video. “The door is cracked! … We’re in, we’re in! Derrick Evans is in the Capitol!” Vice President Mike Pence was in the building to preside over the Senate’s certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s election victory. Pence went ahead despite Trump’s pleas to get Pence to block the transfer of power.
During testimony before Congress, FBI Director Christopher Wray was asked whether there was any reason to believe the insurrection was organized by “fake Trump protesters.”
“We have not seen evidence of that,” said Wray, who was appointed by Trump.
CLAIM: THE RIOTERS WEREN’T VIOLENT
Dozens of police officers were severely injured. One Capitol Police officer who was attacked and assaulted with bear spray suffered a stroke and died a day later of natural causes.
Former Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, who rushed to the scene, said he was “grabbed, beaten, tased, all while being called a traitor to my country.” The assault stopped only when he said he had children. He later learned he had suffered a heart attack. Fanone resigned from the department in December 2021.
Rioters broke into the Senate chamber minutes after senators had fled under armed protection. They rifled through desks and looked for lawmakers, yelling, “Where are they?” In House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, staffers hid under desks while rioters called out the name of the California Democrat.
That’s not how some Republican politicians have described the insurrection.
Appearing on Ingraham’s show in May, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he condemned the Capitol breach as well as the violence, but said it was wrong to term it an insurrection.
“By and large it was a peaceful protest, except for there were a number of people, basically agitators, that whipped the crowd and breached the Capitol,” Johnson said.
Johnson has since said that he doesn’t want the violent actions of a few to be used to impugn all.
Rep. Andrew Clyde, after watching video footage of rioters walking through the Capitol, said it resembled a “normal tourist visit.” Other video evidence from Jan. 6 showed Clyde, R-Ga., helping barricade the House doors in an attempt to keep the rioters out.
Trump called the insurrection a display of ” spirit and faith and love.”
Rioters also broke windows and doors, stole items from offices and caused an estimated $1.5 million in damage. Outside the Capitol someone set up a gallows with a noose.
“The notion that this was somehow a tourist event is disgraceful and despicable,” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in May. “And, you know, I won’t be part of whitewashing what happened on Jan. 6. Nobody should be part of it. And people ought to be held accountable.”
CLAIM: TRUMP DID NOT ENCOURAGE THE RIOTERS
Trump may now want to minimize his involvement, but he spent months sounding a steady drumbeat of conspiracy theory and grievance, urging his followers to fight to somehow return him to power.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 19, 2020. “Be there, will be wild!”
Immediately before the mob stormed the Capitol, Trump spoke for more than an hour, telling his supporters they had been “cheated” and “defrauded” in the “rigged” election by a “criminal enterprise” that included lawmakers who were now meeting in the Capitol.
At one point, Trump did urge his supporters to “peacefully and patriotically make your voice heard.” The rest of his speech was filled with hostile rhetoric.
“We fight. We fight like hell,” he told those who would later break into the Capitol. “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Now, Trump says he had nothing to do with the riot.
“I wasn’t involved in that, and if you look at my words and what I said in the speech, they were extremely calming actually,” Trump said on Fox News in December.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe Trump bears some responsibility for the Capitol breach, according to a survey last year by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
CLAIM: ASHLI BABBITT WAS KILLED BY AN OFFICER WORKING FOR DEMOCRATS
Babbitt died after being shot in the shoulder by a lieutenant in the Capitol Police force as she and others pressed to enter the Speaker’s Lobby outside the House chamber.
Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran, was unarmed. An investigation cleared the officer of wrongdoing.
The Capitol Police Department protects all members of Congress, as well as employees, the public and Capitol facilities. The officer wasn’t assigned to any particular lawmaker.
Trump falsely claimed the officer was the head of security “for a certain high official, a Democrat,” and was being shielded from accountability. He also misstated where Babbitt was shot.
“Who is the person that shot … an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman, a military woman, right in the head?” Trump asked on Fox News.
CLAIM: THE JAN. 6 SUSPECTS ARE POLITICAL PRISONERS AND ARE BEING MISTREATED
No, they are not, despite some assertions from members of Congress.
“J6 defendants are political prisoners of war,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., tweeted in November. She said she had visited some suspects in jail who complained about the food, medical care and “re-education” they were receiving in custody.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said the Justice Department was “harassing peaceful patriots” by investigating their involvement in the insurrection.
While it’s true some of the suspects have complained about their time in jail, it’s wrong to argue they’re being held as political prisoners. Authorities have said the suspects in custody are being given the same access to food and medical care as any other inmate.
One of the most notorious rioters, Jacob Chansley, known as the QAnon Shaman, was given organic food in his jail cell after he complained about the food options.