Months before attackers supporting then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6, social media sites were flooded with angry postings claiming the presidential election had been rigged and calling for violence.
The “stop the steal” campaigns, which falsely claimed Democrats stole the election for President Joe Biden through widespread voter fraud, became a rallying cry for the angry mob that attacked the Capitol on a day that will go down as one of the darkest in American history.
One year after the attack, false information continues to be recirculated and repeated by Trump’s supporters, by candidates running for elected office, by Trump himself and among families around dinner tables.
Political observers, pollsters and researchers contend those divergent, false narratives about the worst violence visited on the center of American government in more than 200 years continue to sow seeds of radicalization.
“The legacy of the Capitol riots is that violence, or the threat of violence, has now become the norm for this kind of political strategy,” said Juliette Kayyem, a national security expert and former Homeland Security official under former President Barack Obama. “That’s something we haven’t seen since the Civil War.”
Kayyem said Trump and other Republican leaders’ refusal to repudiate the Jan. 6 siege increases the likelihood of political violence in the future.
“It’s created an atmosphere in which violence sits just a scratch below the surface of our voting rights,” she said. “And that, to me, is the most troubling aspect.”
SIEGE YEARS IN THE MAKING
Although Trump and many of his inner circle continue to discard the Jan. 6 attack as a spontaneous eruption, a flow of evidence that started days before the Capitol breach suggests the violence was part of a coordinated effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
“This was not something that just got out of hand,” Kayyem said.
Researchers who track disinformation in American politics say the roots of the attack date back years.
Luke O’Brien, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said many of Trump’s supporters across the country were “radicalized” over a period of years by conservative social media influencers and political rhetoric from the former president, members of his family and surrogates.
O’Brien points to conservative political activists like Ali Alexander, who began fanning claims that the 2020 election would be rigged even before voters headed to the polls.
“You had this influencer class of right-wing propagandists, working together to get out disinformation about the election,” O’Brien said. “Meanwhile, you’ve got a whole contingent of elected officials in Congress and elsewhere who were amplifying this disinformation and putting a stamp of authority on it.”
He said that gave a “green light” to extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers who federal investigators contend coalesced to coordinate before and during the violence.
“By themselves they don’t have the numbers to overthrow our democracy,” O’Brien said. “They needed to activate a mob, and that’s exactly what happened.”
PARTISAN DIVIDE PERSISTS
In the year since the attack, a mass of evidence has emerged, providing an often firsthand view of the assault, and intimate glimpses of its underlying catalysts.
More than 700 people have been charged with crimes related to the attack – counts ranging from assaulting a police officer to conspiracy. A number of the defendants have been sentenced to prison terms. The FBI still is seeking and arresting more suspects.
But even efforts to organize Congressional examinations of the Capitol siege and its motivators have exposed divisions between lawmakers who witnessed the violence firsthand.
On Capitol Hill, a Democratic-led House committee is conducting hearings as part of its investigation into the riot. That panel has subpoenaed hundreds of individuals to testify and collected a mountain of documents, phone records and texts.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans were quick to condemn the Capitol riots in the immediate aftermath, but Trump’s supporters and even members of Congress have since helped spread lies and disinformation about the incident.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, criticized the Justice Department for “harassing” suspected rioters, whom he described as “peaceful patriots.”
Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Georgia, described rioters walking through the Capitol on Jan. 6 as appearing to look like a “normal tourist visit” and suggested that the riot was far less serious than portrayed.
And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, suggested recently that the riots were an attempt to “overthrow tyrants” and therefore supported by the Constitution.
Some elected officials even suggested the attack was staged by the government, a “false-flag” operation — a claim stoked by conservative media outlets.
“They are trying to paper over these attacks and pretend like it never happened,” said Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass. who was at the Capitol building during the riot. “Many of us were hoping that this would be a turning point for the Republican party, to move away from extremism, but that clearly hasn’t happened.”
Trahan noted some Republican lawmakers have even criticized the work of the House special committee and the two GOP lawmakers — Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — who serve on it.
Even some GOP lawmakers whose decisions were profoundly impacted by what they witnessed during the attack are reluctant to discuss the melee today.
When rioters breached the Capitol, Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, stood at the podium giving a speech, challenging the integrity of the Arizona election results and urging his colleagues to create a 10-day commission to audit the ballots.
A day after he fled the Senate chamber with other lawmakers, Lankford wrote to supporters that “rioters trashed multiple offices, broke windows and occupied the Capitol.”
“Those painful images will forever be burned into my mind,” he wrote. He said “violence and terror” are not acceptable ways to handle disagreements.
Lankford later voted to accept the electors in the Senate debate in part because he wrote that delaying the vote would only add more uncertainty “and opportunities for risk in our nation.”
A year later, in the midst of a 2022 re-election campaign, Lankford faces criticism for his statements and actions in the aftermath of Jan. 6. Jackson Lahmeyer, a Republican challenger, noted on his campaign website Lankford “flip-flopped like a fish out of water and caved like a coward to certify a lie.”
Lankford declined a request for an interview for this story.
IT COULD HAPPEN AGAIN
Meanwhile, Trump and his surrogates continue to circulate disinformation about the events of that day as his supporters call for the release of “political prisoners” arrested as part of the FBI’s criminal investigation into the melee.
The fact-checking organization Politifact rated efforts to rewrite the history of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots as the “lie of the year” in 2021.
Political observers say a legacy of the mob violence is a country more divided, a claim that has been borne out in recent surveys which suggest misinformation about the Capitol riot resonated with supporters.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll in April found that six in 10 Republicans believe the false claim championed by Trump that November’s presidential election “was stolen” through widespread voter fraud.
Roughly half of Republicans surveyed at the time believed the siege was a “non-violent protest” or was instigated by left-wing activists, pollsters found.
Kevin Boyle, a professor of American History at Northwestern University, said disenchantment with the political process, fueled by widespread disinformation, is breeding political violence and sowing seeds of insurrection.
“I think that there is a fundamental distrust of American politics of American public life that has taken hold with large segments of the American population,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of anger that is channeled into political extremism that has a whole bunch of roots to it, some of them economic, some of them racial.”
Meanwhile, a recent Politifact investigation revealed that many of defendants arrested on charges related to the attack saw their actions as patriotic, and believed that day would be a turning point in American history.
Ernesto Verdeja, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, said social media has played a key role in fueling division.
He said partisan debate on social media drives people into further fringe activities and groups.
“When the Internet first started, we believed it would have a democratizing effect,” Verdeja said. “What has been really fascinating to see is how social media has effectively … become echo chambers for very intentional disinformation.”
O’Brien, with the Shorenstein Center, said many of the propagandist networks backing the former president still are active and waiting for the next rallying call.
“A lot of those people who spread this information are still out there, doing exactly the same thing,” he said. “So, as troubling as it is, it can happen again.”
CNHI Statehouse reporters Janelle Stecklein, Ali Linan and Whitney Downard contributed to this report.