Mob at U.S. Capitol encouraged by online conspiracy theories

CHICAGO (AP) — Every video the Louisiana man posts on Twitter and Facebook starts with a big smile and a wish for his thousands of followers to have a blessed day.

But as he drove to the nation’s capital Tuesday morning, he grew loud and angry talking about the presidential election.

“You aren’t going to wake up and see?” Christian Suprean, 42, said in one of a dozen videos that together have drawn more than 30,000 views on Twitter in recent days. “I think we won everything. I think we won everything!”

Suprean is one of thousands of President Donald Trump’s fiercest supporters who, fueled by dozens of internet conspiracy theories about the November election, responded to online cries to join a “fight” on the president’s behalf Wednesday. In posts liked and shared thousands of times, far-right social media users openly hinted for weeks that chaos would erupt at the U.S. Capitol while Congress convened to certify the election results.

Despite those warnings that disgruntled crowds of Trump supporters were headed for Washington, a mob seized control of the Capitol and vandalized the building, sending members of Congress into hiding for several hours. Lawmakers from both parties have pledged to investigate law enforcement’s actions and questioned whether a lack of preparedness allowed the melee.

“It’s what brought them out to the streets yesterday — that’s how they found information about where to gather,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert at the nonpartisan Wilson Center in Washington, said of the social media posts. “Yesterday, the effect of disinformation, conspiracy theories and extremism was on display for the entire world to see.”

The president encouraged his Twitter and Facebook followers to attend Wednesday’s rally, at times using warlike imagery to urge supporters to show up. Minutes before they stormed the Capitol, Trump pressed his hopeless case to overturn the election in front of the crowd in a speech laced with conspiracy theories.

“The (cavalry) is coming, Mr. President,” said one of the president’s retweets on Jan. 1 sharing details about the rally.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Suprean said Trump’s calls on social media motivated him to drive 15 hours from Slidell, Louisiana, to Washington. He documented the trip and rally with videos and photos — all taken from outside the Capitol building — that he shared on his Twitter, Facebook and YouTube pages, where he regularly references QAnon and has a strong following from QAnon accounts. QAnon is a baseless belief, born on the internet, that Trump has been secretly fighting deep state enemies and a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibals operating a child sex-trafficking ring.

Dozens of QAnon social media accounts spent the days leading up to the D.C. rally hyping up Jan. 6, expressing hope that the election results would be overturned.

QAnon’s influence was evident as the mob descended on the halls of Congress. Police officers were photographed fending off a man in a “Q” sweatshirt from the Senate chamber. A leading promoter of QAnon was also photographed in Senate chambers wearing bull horns and face paint.

Facebook said in a statement late Wednesday that it was removing photos and videos posted by the mob at the Capitol. Twitter also said it was working to “take action” on threats and calls for violence.

But as the riot continued, QAnon and far-right conservatives used social media to urge followers to “hold the line” and “trust the plan,” phrases that were mentioned more than 80,000 times across online media Wednesday and Thursday, according to an analysis by media intelligence firm Zignal Labs. More than 1 million mentions of “civil war” and “storm the capitol” appeared in Twitter posts, the firm also found. Others called for Vice President Mike Pence — who enraged Trump when he acknowledged that he did not have the power to unilaterally throw out electoral college votes — to be tried for treason. One Facebook post, quickly deleted, said Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should be hanged.

And many pro-Trump accounts are still using the platforms to celebrate Wednesday’s riots as a success with QAnon hashtags. Others continue to push conspiracy theories that Trump is the rightful winner of the election.

“WE DID IT! THANK Q PATRIOTS!” one QAnon account wrote on Twitter, moments after Pence was whisked away from Senate chambers for his safety.

Facebook announced Wednesday that it was suspending Trump’s ability to post on its site indefinitely. Twitter also temporarily locked Trump’s account.

While Facebook and Twitter have locked Trump out of his account, the platforms have not taken strong enough action against the social media network of conspiracy theorists that encouraged Wednesday’s riots, Jankowicz said.

“That’s going to embolden these extremists in the future,” she said. “They see their job as a job well done, and they can do it again with impunity.”

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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