FBI Director Christopher Wray was live on CNN and MSNBC when he told a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday morning that the FBI had not yet found any evidence that subscribers to the Antifa movement were involved in the January attack on the US Capitol.
At that moment, Fox News was in a commercial break from its regular programming. It had just urged viewers to stay tuned for a segment about educators "canceling" Dr. Seuss.
And so America's most popular right-wing television network again missed a chance -- or, perhaps, again chose to miss a chance -- to confront its viewers with the debunking of a lie that has become a widespread belief among right-wing Americans.
In part because of Fox, the conspiracy theory has become pervasive in conservative circles. Opinion polls suggest that a large percentage of Republicans baselessly think that Antifa was primarily responsible for the insurrection that was actually perpetrated by supporters of former President Donald Trump, some of whom have allegedly expressed irritation that Antifa has been given the credit for their own behavior.
In a January poll by the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, 50% of Republicans said Antifa was mostly responsible for the violence at the Capitol. A January poll by NBC found that 48% of Republican registered voters thought Antifa was solely or mainly responsible for the Capitol riot.
The problem is bigger than Fox
Fox News deserves part of the blame for this worrying state of affairs. Some of its most prominent personalities have given fuel to the lie. Other Fox personalities have joined Trump in generally overhyping the danger posed by Antifa -- a far-left, sometimes violent collection of self-described anti-fascists -- thus priming viewers to perceive a movement that has been much less deadly than far-right extremism as a principal threat to the nation.
But the problem here is bigger than any one media outlet. The lie about Antifa and the Capitol has been promoted by a large roster of right-wing people and entities.
They include right-wing television networks Newsmax and One America News; Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Trump impeachment attorney Michael van der Veen; Republican members of Congress like Rep. Mo Brooks, Rep. Matt Gaetz and Sen. Ron Johnson; Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Republican state legislators; former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin; right-wing conspiracy websites like The Gateway Pundit; and popular right-wing commentators on social media and talk radio.
The peddlers of the lie have found a tiny nugget of truth to help their cause. Of more than 260 Capitol defendants who have been revealed by the Department of Justice to date, one of them, John Sullivan, is a political oddball who has used the hashtag #antifa on social media. But left-wing activists have previously expressed suspicion about him, the FBI has never claimed that he is an actual Antifa activist and, regardless, the list of people charged over the riot is overwhelmingly composed of Trump supporters -- including, as Wray testified Tuesday, militia members and White supremacists.
A history of blaming Antifa
In a well-reported story this week, The New York Times identified a false article published by the conservative Washington Times on the day of the insurrection as particularly impactful in the spread of the lie that Antifa was responsible. The article, which the Washington Times later corrected, wrongly claimed that a facial recognition company had identified two Antifa members at the Capitol.
There's no doubt that the inaccurate version of the article went viral on social media. If it hadn't, though, some other Antifa-related lie almost certainly would have.
Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, noted that right-wing media has found a way to falsely blame Antifa for everything from mass shootings to wildfires. The lie about Antifa orchestrating the Capitol attack, Donovan said, is part of "a very long disinformation campaign against the left" by a "right-wing media ecosystem that wants to shift the blame for anything bad that happens in our society."
And much of the ecosystem of right-wing media consumers is willing to eat it up.
As impossible as it seems to get Fox News and other lucrative right-wing platforms to behave more responsibly in supplying information, it seems just as hard to address the demand-side problem. Between the popularity of absurd lies about the birthplace of former President Barack Obama, the rise of the bonkers QAnon movement, the popularity of Trump's lies about the 2020 election and now the popularity of this lie about Antifa and the Capitol, it appears clear that millions of right-wing Americans are eager to believe in outlandish conspiracy theories about their political opponents.
Fact-checkers will keep debunking the nonsense. But we know that in the short term there is no number of fact checks or statements from the FBI that can convince millions of Americans that they are wrong.