Jake Angeli stood bare-chested, wearing his trademark buffalo cap and holding an American flag, among a group of other men who stormed the U.S. Capitol building Wednesday afternoon. The well-known QAnon evangelist’s presence in such a moment was considered by some fact-checkers and researchers as the culmination of the impact of mis- and disinformation on American politics.
Angeli has mostly been active in Arizona. In 2019, he was seen outside the state Capitol building shouting dozens of conspiracy theories. According to The Arizona Republic, he carried a sign that read “Q sent me” and kept repeating that “Q was a government agent who wanted to ‘take the country back’ from pedophiles and globalists”.
In May, he was interviewed by AZCentral, in Phoenix, and showed his support for the way President Donald Trump has been handling the pandemic.
“His response in creating some sort of press briefing every single day to help reassure Americans is a good thing, because I think people are worried a little more than they should be,” Angeli said. “If we look at the numbers and projections pushed by the media relative to what the numbers actually turned out to be then we see that there’s been a lot of hysteria that was completely unnecessary and it was put in there by the mainstream press.”
A month ago, Angeli launched an online crowdfunding campaign so he could participate in more pro-Trump events. His goal was to raise $800 “to help pay for a rental car, gas, lodging, and other expenses to make the trip to Washington D.C and back to Arizona for the MAGA Million March on Dec-12th-2020.”
Angeli, however, only managed to receive a single donation of $50 and there is no public sign he started a new campaign to get funding for today’s event on Capitol Hill. Somehow, however, he managed to be there — and showed that mis/disinformers can go really, really far.
“You’re seeing the complete collapse of reality,” said Christopher Guess, lead technologist at the Duke Reporters’ Lab, when asked if the Capitol breach had any connections with misinformation. “You’ve got people arguing for a worldview that Joe Biden is not the president.”
U.S fact-checkers have debunked dozens of posts regarding what Trump calls a fraudulent election. PolitiFact, for example, published on Nov. 18 a round-up article with some of them.
“Since Election Day, PolitiFact has fact-checked more than 80 misleading or false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election,” wrote the reporter Daniel Funke.
Many of those false claims were being repeated on social media and reposted by Trump.
At 4:17 p.m., the president released a video on Twitter trying to quell the riots breaking out at the Capitol, but still claimed the election had been stolen and he had won by a landslide. Fact-checkers and election officials in multiple states have debunked both claims.
A few minutes later, the content was flagged by Twitter as “disputed” and couldn’t be liked and/or retweeted “due to the risk of violence” it could promote. But that might not have been enough.
Maarten Schenk, co-founder of the U.S fact-checking organization Lead Stories, drew a direct line between Trump’s earlier speech on the Ellipse just south of the White House and the Capitol protests.
“It just felt like a long list of election hoaxes that he was reading, and no one in the crowd batted an eye at it,” he said. Schenk referenced the debunked burst water pipe falsehood and the hoax about suitcases of ballots in Georgia as just a couple of the falsehoods Trump mentioned.
“Either these people didn’t believe the fact checks, or they never heard of them,” he said.
Baybars Örsek, the International Fact-Checking Network’s director, saw a clear connection between the events in Washington and the spread of mis/disinformation. In a tweet posted around 5 p.m., he wrote: “This is not the first time in the world where masses obstruct a democratic process during a transfer of power but might be the first one fueled by conspiracy theories on such a scale.”
Örsek’s said it’s time for reflection. “*We* all will need to reflect on this and take our lessons, otherwise, it will be too late.”
Guess said Wednesday’s breach of the U.S. Capitol is the price of ignoring harmful disinformation. He referenced the Nov. 2020 Washington Post article where an anonymous GOP official was quoted asking, “What’s the downside of humoring him?” in reference to the president’s debunked conspiracy theories.
“This is the harm,” Guess said. “Fact-checkers are working as hard as they can, but it’s an impossible battle when conspiracies are being reinforced with someone that has the cultural penetration like the president of the United States has.”