As the disinformation exploded across social media, Donovan points out, it benefited both from the openness and scale of major sites such as Facebook and Twitter and from the fact that it was shared enthusiastically in private Facebook groups, making its virality harder to track. Of the public Facebook posts about the story, Representative Gaetz’s was the most influential, according to data from the social-media-monitoring tool CrowdTangle. His initial post has been shared more than 7,000 times. In addition, his tweet of the link has been retweeted more than 11,000 times. (Gaetz also cited the false story in a speech on the House floor Wednesday night, saying that it provided “compelling evidence” that “some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters; they were masquerading as Trump supporters.”)
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.)
Oddly, these platforms were joined in their effort to correctly identify the mob’s political allegiances by Trump diehards who were proud to accept credit. Samantha Marika, a right-wing social-media personality with 293,000 Twitter followers, appeared enthralled by the insurrection and frustrated by the claims that it was staged by antifa. “Those people aren’t Antifa,” she tweeted. “They are patriots.” On her Instagram Story, she reposted a tweet from the pro-Trump blogger David Leatherwood: “I don’t know how some of you have spent the last 2 months riling up the base about a stolen election and telling everybody we must fight- And then when we finally do you cower away and blame Antifa. Beta cucks.”
Gray, the rapper and Trump fan, for his part spent much of Wednesday and yesterday reminding his 205,000 followers of the truth in exceptionally clear terms: “No it wasn’t Antifa that stormed the Capitol building. That was us,” he wrote in one tweet. “MAGA was in DC fighting for our country and freedoms,” he wrote in another. “Twitter ‘maga’ people were giving the credit to Antifa.” That tweet ended with an emoji shedding a tear.
Social media’s scale and searchability is such that anybody looking to believe almost anything can quickly and easily find what seems like evidence to support that belief, then push it out to a wider and wider circle. In the past few days, factions of political factions have coalesced around cherry-picked pieces of reality or fondly held bits of delusion. On Instagram on Wednesday afternoon, the supposed proof of antifa’s involvement I saw most often was a blurry image of a man with a hand tattoo. Popular right-wing influencers who appeared shaken by the day’s events agreed that the tattoo was definitely a hammer and sickle, indicating that the man was a communist infiltrator in (lazy) disguise. Others have posted urgings to “think critically” about why the Capitol was so easily overrun, congregating around the possibility of some kind of setup. Meanwhile, people like Gray know that they sang the national anthem outside on a patch of grass—to their mind, this means the day was peaceful.