Conspiracy theories began appearing on the Internet almost immediately in the wake of Wednesday’s violent takeover of the United States Capitol, where a mob of Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol Building while both chambers of Congress were in session certifying the 2020 Presidential electoral votes.
One rumor that began gaining a lot of traction in the hours after the Capitol riot, which killed five, including a police officer, was the theory that the attempted insurrection was aided—and possibly orchestrated—by members of the far-left movement Antifa. While the initial media report that sparked this myth has since been retracted, the apocryphal story continues to be circulated by conservative media outlets eager to make inroads among pro-Trump audiences in the months following the 2020 election.
It’s a ridiculous idea for a lot of reasons, chief among them that it doesn’t hold up under its own logic. Considering Trump supporters openly plotted storming the Capitol on social media platforms and pro-Trump forums in the weeks leading up to the attack. Considering Trump himself pitched the electoral vote count as his last stand and incited supporters during his “Save America” rally that morning to march to the Capitol as the Congressional hearing was taking place. Considering many of the extremists who breached the Capitol had long been identified as Trump supporters who’d been documented in photos and videos attending previous “Stop the Steal” rallies. Considering many of them livestreamed the Jan. 6 takeover from their social media accounts—the Proud Boys' own official Parler account confirmed the group was inside the Capitol—and in some cases, were interviewed by the press afterwards, where they freely admitted why they were doing what they were doing. Given all this, the falsity of the Washington Times story, which didn’t name any of the allegedly identified Antifa members or provide any further evidence to support its central thesis, should’ve been pretty self-evident. It wasn’t exactly ironclad reporting.
As it turns out, the story was indeed apocryphal. The day after the Washington Times report was published, XRVision issued a statement claiming the story to be “outright false, misleading, and defamatory,” and demanded, through the company’s lawyer, that the publisher cease and desist “from any claims regarding the sourcing of XRVision analytics, retract its current claims, and publish an apology.” The statement also claimed the Washington Times never even attempted to contact XRVision to verify its reporting.
The FBI on Friday additionally said no evidence had been found that Antifa infiltrated the crowd or were part of the provocation. Corroborating this, Fox News on Friday separately reported that Justice Department officials reported no evidence supporting the theory that Antifa members had been part of the Jan. 6 putsch.
Nonetheless, a genie was out of the bottle by this point, and the rumor that the Capitol Building attack may have been a covert Antifa operation continued to proliferate across social media channels and was quickly picked up by conservative news outlets which began publishing their own version of the story. A New York Post article quoted an unnamed law enforcement "source" who claimed, entirely without evidence, that Antifa members had been present in the Capitol Building crowd. The Epoch Times—which is loosely associated with the Falun Gong religious movement and has previously spread QAnon conspiracy theories as well as anti-vaccination propaganda—circulated a video purporting to show Trump supporters attempting to prevent Antifa vandals from entering the Capitol Building.
One of the most wide-reaching installments in this game of telephone came from One America News Network, which ran a story on Jan. 7 under the headline “Evidence Emerges Of Antifa Infiltrating Capitol Hill Protests.” That article drew most of its source material from Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-FL) Electoral College objection speech on the House floor hours after the attack. Citing the “pretty compelling evidence from a facial-recognition company” in the Washington Times report, Gaetz claimed that members of the “violent terrorist group Antifa” were responsible for breaching the Capitol Building while “masquerading as Trump supporters.” OANN’s article, which didn’t have a byline or feature any exclusive quotes or independent reporting, was the top story on the OANN site that day.
OANN, which has previously published “news” segments on how Dominion Voting Systems rigged the 2020 election and also staffs reporters who have covered the Pizzagate hoax, is among the crop of once-obscure right-wing outlets—alongside Newsmax—who’ve stumbled upon a successful strategy for amassing viewers in recent months by essentially positioning themselves as Trump hagiographists. The San Diego-based broadcaster, which in May was described by The Atlantic as Trump’s “favorite cable-news network,” reaches an estimated 35 million homes but still doesn’t subscribe to Nielsen.
On Thursday, the Washington Times admitted its reporting was erroneous, and issued a correction of its initial story along with an apology: “An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that XRVision facial recognition software identified Antifa members among rioters who stormed the Capitol Wednesday,” the correction read. “XRVision did not identify any Antifa members. The Washington Times apologizes to XRVision for the error.”
The Washington Times also heavily edited its article to state that the publication had “erroneously reported that facial recognition technology … identified two Antifa members. In fact, XRVision has not identified any members of that far-left movement as being part of the attack.”
Given that the crux of the Washington Times report was admittedly false, there isn’t much in the way of a “story” here. It also means that Rep. Gaetz’s claims—and OANN’s reporting of it—are fundamentally erroneous. Even Fox News host Jeanine Pirro wasn’t buying it, excoriating her viewers on Saturday to “stop looking for other people to blame, including those dirt bags Antifa!”
And yet, as of Monday morning, OANN’s report remains uncorrected. In fact, the media company appears to have doubled down: conveniently ignoring the Washington Times’ correction, OANN on Saturday broadcast a segment recirculating the video used by the Epoch Times and others under the headline: “Reports are emerging from numerous eyewitness accounts that Antifa was actually behind the acts of violence at the Capitol on Wednesday.”
O’Dwyer’s on Friday reached out to OANN to see if the company plans to issue a correction to its reporting. As of press time Monday morning, we have yet to hear a response.
O’Dwyer’s additionally called Rep. Gaetz’s office in Washington D.C. to see if the Congressman plans to issue a statement correcting his claim. As of press time Monday morning, we have not received a response.
Jon Gingerich is senior editor of O'Dwyer's monthly magazine.
He won The Saturday Evening Post’s “2020 Great American Fiction Contest" for “Thornhope, Indiana,” which appeared in the Jan./Feb. issue of its flagship print magazine, as well as online.
He can be found on Twitter at Twitter.com/GingerichJon