January 6 Conspiracy Theories and False Narratives, One Year On

The incessant media frenzy surrounding the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, combined with the information vacuum created by the initial lack of official commentary or explanation of how it was allowed to happen, proved to be fertile ground for speculation and conspiracy theories.

Newsweek looked back at some of the most prominent false or unevidenced narratives to have emerged in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, or formed gradually over the ensuing months, as investigations into its causes continue.

The Claim: Antifa and "fake Trump protesters" were behind the insurrection

One of the first conspiracy theories to emerge in the aftermath of the Capitol siege, perpetuated by conservative news hosts, political figures, and allies of then-President Donald Trump, posited that the rioters weren't real Trump supporters, but rather members of the Antifa movement, blending into the crowds to provoke violence.

In an offshoot from this narrative, other conspiracy theorists focused on a software company called XRVision, which supposedly used facial recognition technology to prove rioters were linked to an Antifa website.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) cited The Washington Times report (which was later retracted) to claim that "some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters—they were masquerading as Trump supporters and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group antifa."

The latter claim was attributed to an unnamed retired military officer cited in the article.

And in February, Michael Van der Veen, Trump's lawyer during his second impeachment trial, repeated similar accusations, stating that "one of the first people arrested was a leader of Antifa."

The "Antifa" conspiracy theory continued to circulate widely on social media in the following months, alongside a number of similar (and in some cases contradictory) false narratives about the organizers behind and participants of the January 6 riot.

The Facts

False claims suggesting Antifa was behind the January 6 insurrection have been debunked by law enforcement agencies and media outlets in the weeks following the riot. Many of those making the unevidenced claims have since then retracted them or admitted that the narratives are not based in fact.

When The Washington Times retracted its article after its underlying claim was disputed by XRVision, Gaetz tweeted: "I cited a Wash Times publication w/ requisite caveat. If it isn't true, the point still stands that our nation has endured both left and right wing violence & I condemn it all."

One of the most visible and prominent participants of the riot, Jacob Chansley, also known as Jake Angeli, the Q Shaman or QAnon Shaman, was photographed inside the building during the riots wearing his fur hat and horns. But he was not an "antifa agent," as Lin Wood and others had claimed. Angeli himself dismissed the conspiracy theories linking him to antifa, calling himself "QAnon & digital soldier."

Other participants of the riot falsely identified as members of Antifa in the months following the riot, were later proven to be supporters of Donald Trump.

Two men pictured inside the Senate, who were linked to the Philly Antifa group in the retracted Washington Times article, turned out instead to be affiliated with the Maryland Skinheads and the National Socialist Movements.

"These two are known Nazi organizations, they are not Antifa," XRVision told Newsweek.

Another rioter with purported Antifa ties, a Utah man named John Sullivan who called himself an activist and a journalist, was among the hundreds of people arrested and charged in the ensuing investigation.

Sullivan, who became subject of a meme referring to him as a "known antifa member," has denied any affiliation with Antifa, and federal charging documents showed no indication of his purported links to the movement.

As of January 2022, at least 700 people have been charged with crimes relating to the January 6 riot, and the FBI has estimated that 2,000 people may have been involved in the attack. According to NPR analysis, 13 percent of those charged have ties to the military or law enforcement, while more than 100 have alleged ties to known extremist or fringe organizations, such as QAnon, the Proud Boys, and the Oath Keepers.

But so far no evidence has been brought forth to corroborate the "Antifa" narratives. FBI Director Christopher Wray, an appointee of Trump, testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, calling the attacks on the Capitol acts of domestic terrorism and assured there was no evidence that fake Trump supporters, "anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to Antifa" organized the siege.

And Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), one of Trump's most devoted allies, also appeared to dismiss the Antifa angle.

"Some say the riots were caused by Antifa," McCarthy said in January. "There is absolutely no evidence of that, and conservatives should be the first to say so."

Kevin McCarthy Capitol Riots
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks as the House debates the certification of Arizona's Electoral College votes after they reconvened following protests at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021. Greg Nash / POOL / AFP/Getty

Claim: The FBI secretly encouraged the riot, or ran it as a "false flag" event

One of the iterations of conspiracy theories and speculation about who was behind the riot involved claims that the event was a "false flag" operation, either enabled or orchestrated by the FBI and/or "Deep State" operatives.

In the summer of 2021, several Republican lawmakers suggested that federal law enforcement, perhaps with support from Democratic officials, intentionally provoked an attempted insurrection on January 6.

During the House Oversight Committee hearing on June 15, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) suggested Democrats conspired to disarm law enforcement and service members defending the Capitol, while Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) accused the U.S. Capitol Police officer who fatally shot Ashli Babbitt of "lying in wait" to "execute" her.

Later that day, Fox News host Tucker Carlson called for "rounding up the FBI operatives that rioted" on January 6, and intimated that "unindicted co-conspirators" who have yet to be charged might be FBI informants.

The lawyer Sidney Powell repeated the unevidenced accusations of an FBI conspiracy, as did Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who on June 16 retweeted fellow Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz speculating that the so-called "deep state" was "deeply involved in Jan 6th."

The claims were repeated and amplified on social media, with users baselessly stating that the "FBI Planned And Executed January 6 Capitol Riot" or blaming the "Deep State".

The Facts

The claim that indictments against some members of extremist groups did in fact mention anonymous co-conspirators, who haven't been charged yet, was accurate.

But as legal experts have pointed out, the mere mention of "unindicted co-conspirators" in the documents doesn't amount to evidence that unidentified individuals were working for the government.

Federal case law from 1985 (United States v. Rodriguez) specifically states that "government agents and informers cannot be conspirators."

Separately, it is also true that the FBI routinely uses undercover agents, sometimes embedding them in extremist groups including those involved in the January 6 events. An FBI informant was indeed part of the group of Proud Boys who marched on the Capitol, as The New York Times reported in September.

But the informant denied possessing any knowledge that the group intended to use violence that day or made plans in advance to storm the Capitol. A separate Times report noted that undercover agents were referred to in the charges as "confidential human sources" and "undercover employees," not "unindicted co-conspirators."

There is no credible evidence to suggest that any of the "co-conspirators" were the FBI informers, or that FBI agents were involved in instigating or orchestrating the rally. Yet the logical fallacy of building a narrative around two unrelated facts has allowed the conspiracy theory to flourish on social media through the course of the year.

US Capitol on January 5, 2022
Security bike fences stand near the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on the eve of the one year anniversary of the January 6 riot in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Claim: Law enforcement failed to act and stop the mob

Although the wilder conspiracy theories of "Deep state" purportedly being behind the Capitol attack have been debunked, claims of law enforcement incompetence and failures that allowed the rally to escalate into a violent storming of the Capitol appear to have some basis in fact.

One claim that remains a core vector of the House Select Committee investigation is that law enforcement and intelligence agencies had sufficient information and warnings about the potential for violence, but failed to act on them.

The Facts

As Newsweek wrote in January 2021, the claim is mostly accurate, in that there was ample evidence of discussions between Trump supporters online and on social media about the rally for over 20 days prior to the event. Additionally, statements from law enforcement and FBI officials indicated that they had received prior intelligence and even approached several known extremists to discourage violent actions ahead of the rally.

Since then separate investigations and ensuing media coverage exposed failures across multiple agencies to spot and act on the "red flags" in the run-up to the insurrection.

While it is becoming increasingly clear that law enforcement was not sufficiently prepared or alert to the potential for violence, the FBI has initially found little evidence to suggest that the attack on the Capitol was pre-planned or centrally coordinated, as part of a plot to overturn the presidential election.

However, in December, Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, a Democrat, filed a federal lawsuit against far-right groups Proud Boys and Oath Keepers over their role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

Earlier similar lawsuits were filed by U.S. Capitol Police officers and jointly by the NAACP and several Congressmen. And information gathered by the House Investigative Committee may yet yield more evidence of coordination.

But while investigations into the origins of the insurrection continue, some of the more controversial narratives about the Capitol police and federal law enforcement's response to the violent mob don't hold water.

One such example is a viral video that was shared on TikTok and other platforms, showing crowds breaching the barricades during the riot. The video was quickly pounced on by conspiracy theorists who claimed that the Capitol Police was complicit in the attack and "let the rioters in."

As Newsweek reported on January 7, 2021, photos and videos from various other perspectives showed that officers were battling to hold their lines in front of the increasingly violent mob. The author of the video had then told Newsweek then that the police were "completely outnumbered, there wouldn't have been any point in fighting."

Though this particular narrative has been debunked, some of the similar claims pointing to security failures at the Capitol were later proven to be at least partially correct. One example includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D-NY) concerns that some law enforcement officers were aligned with the rioters.

The Democratic lawmaker's remark was referencing an earlier announcement by the Capitol Police, which, following an investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), took disciplinary action against six officers, including one for failure to comply with directives and one for improper dissemination of information.

Still, the U.S. Attorney's Office affirmed that it "did not find sufficient evidence that any of the officers committed a crime" and found no evidence of wrongdoing in the remaining cases.

The Claim: Police brutality against the protesters and "suspicious" suicides

While the archive images and footage of one of the most heavily covered events in U.S. history continues to be scrutinized by the FBI, the House Committee, the media, and thousands of online volunteers, the sheer volume of content depicting the events of January 6 provided fuel for manipulation and misinformation.

One of the false January 6 narratives that quickly gathered pace in the ensuing weeks was that the rally was merely a mass gathering of peaceful protesters, who were forced to push back against purported police brutality. Images and video excerpts have been shared widely in the months that followed, often presented as evidence to both defend the supposedly peaceful demonstrators, and accuse the police of using excessive force.

An off-shoot of this particular narrative was another conspiracy theory, one that focused on multiple Capitol police officer suicides that occurred after the riots, claiming without evidence that they were part of an ongoing cover-up operation.

The Facts

While dozens of demonstrators and law enforcement officers were reported injured in the violence, only one fatality has been confirmed as directly resulting from the clashes—Ashli Babbitt, a pro-Trump protester who was shot by an officer while attempting to break into the Speaker's Lobby.

Four other people had also died during or shortly after the riot, though their deaths were not deemed to be directly caused by the clashes between demonstrators and the police.

Brian Sicknick was part of the Capitol Police force who died the next day after suffering two thromboembolic strokes. Kevin Greeson, a Trump supporter, suffered a heart attack during the riots, while another protester, Benjamin Philip, suffered a stroke.

Finally, Rosanne Boyland died shortly after falling unconscious at the steps of the Capitol entrance as the mob pushed up against the police officers defending the building. Boyland's death, in particular, was the subject of some controversy, as initial reports suggested she was trampled to death by fellow protesters.

Later in 2021, a video emerged, which used footage from media outlets and the House Special Committee archives, to push the narrative that she was in fact beaten to death by police officers.

Newsweek published a detailed debunking of the viral clip, which consisted of several different pieces of footage, filmed from different angles and spliced together in a manipulative way. The coroner's report concluded that Boyland had in fact died of a drug overdose.

Similarly, misinformation and speculative claims surrounded the deaths by suicide of four Capitol police officers that occurred in the days and months following the insurrection.

While conspiracy theorists pounced on the tragic news, no evidence has been presented to suggest that the four deaths are connected beyond the fact that the officers were present in some capacity during or in the aftermath of the riots, and the inevitable mental toll it took on them.

For context, deaths by suicide among law enforcement officers are more likely than being killed in the line of duty, according to recent research commissioned by The Ruderman Family Foundation, while earlier studies show that police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession.

Trump supporters gather on Jan. 6 2021
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 Getty Images/Jon Cherry