Imagine this. As law enforcement tries to secure the Capitol following a pro-Trump insurrection by rioters bent on stopping the peaceful transition of power -- some of whom appeared driven by a desire to murder the vice president and members of Congress -- President Donald Trump publicly blames antifa activists after seeing that baseless claim floated on his television. It would have been a disaster for the notion of a shared reality, powering a conspiracy theory to horrific heights.
We were perilously close to that poisonous scenario coming to pass. Twitter’s decision to lock the president out of his account on the night of the January 6 riot is all that appears to have prevented it. The social media platform’s move to suspend Trump, which it later made permanent, was late and imperfect, but it is nonetheless already paying dividends for the information ecosystem.
Trump reportedly told House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) during a Monday phone call that “antifa people” were responsible for the storming of the Capitol, according to an Axios report. There’s no evidence whatsoever for this conspiracy theory -- many of the rioters were waving Trump flags and some were well-known far-right extremists -- but it nonetheless spread through the right-wing fever swamps after the attack.
Notably, several Fox News programs -- including every show that aired between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on the night of the attack -- floated the false idea that the violence had been started by leftist infiltrators.
Laura Ingraham says the insurrectionists were “antithetical to the MAGA movement” and “there are some reports that antifa sympathizers may have been sprinkled throughout the crowd.”
All three Fox primetime shows have now pushed this baseless rumor. pic.twitter.com/lkzvRIdDMY
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) January 7, 2021
Trump watches Fox’s prime-time programs religiously and he was almost certainly tuned in to the network that night. Trump was “too busy watching fiery TV images of the crisis unfolding around them to act or even bother to hear” the pleas of members of Congress trapped in the Capitol, according to The Washington Post. The paper further reported that “McCarthy repeatedly appeared on television to describe the mayhem” in an attempt to reach the president. Those appearances included Wednesday night interviews on Fox’s The Story and The Ingraham Angle -- both of which also promoted the antifa lie during other segments that night.
When Trump sees a Fox segment that catches his attention, he often tweets about it in real time. He’s sent nearly 1,300 of these Fox live tweets since September 1, 2018. Fox’s antifa conspiracy theory is the sort of story the president loves to promote.
But last Wednesday night, Trump was prevented from tweeting about it. Twitter had locked his account, saying that tweets he sent that day promoting false claims of election fraud violated the company’s civic integrity policy. The suspension went into effect at roughly 7 p.m. that evening, just before the string of Fox programs that promoted the antifa lie aired. While Trump briefly gained control of his account later in the week, the social media platform permanently suspended him on Friday after he sent more tweets the company said risked inciting violence.
Trump’s Twitter ban didn’t stop the antifa lie altogether -- it is still circulating widely on the social platforms. But if he had been able to publicly promote the conspiracy theory to his tens of millions of followers in response to Fox’s irresponsible coverage, it would have taken the situation to a new level. His removal from the platform averted an information calamity -- and shows how reckless Twitter was in waiting so long to cut him off.