How the antifa conspiracy theory traveled from the fringe to the floor of Congress

Rampant on fringe platforms, the claim that “anti-fascists” were inciting violence at the Capitol spread fast through right-wing media to Congress

December 12, 2020

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While much of America watched a mob of Trump supporters overrun police and break into the halls of Congress Wednesday afternoon, members of the far right chatted up an imaginary narrative of what was really going on.

After weeks of planting the idea, dozens of extremists used social media to promote an idea with no basis in reality – that the people besieging the Capitol were actually far-left agitators disguised as Trump supporters.

The trickle of claims became a flood in a matter of hours. It started in secretive corners of the web such as 4chan, but tweets and articles from more and more mainstream conservative news sites followed. It began spiking around 1 p.m., just after rioters started breaching barriers outside the Capitol. Soon, Fox News personalities were sharing the same speculation that circulated among believers in the discredited QAnon conspiracy theory.

Rhys Leahy, a senior research assistant at George Washington University's Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics, watched the scene unfold in real time on the social messaging platform Telegram, which draws legions of Trump supporters.

From her home computer, Leahy was monitoring a network of 300 right-wing extremist Telegram channels as Trump called on the crowd to march on the Capitol. She saw mention of antifa jump from a steady stream of a dozen Telegram posts per hour to more than 10 times that. Videos from the scene, purporting to show people wearing antifa symbols, were coming from dozens of accounts, she said.

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