Conspiracy Theories by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

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.

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