When the first QAnon posts jumped in to leverage the ugly Pizzagate conspiracy theory with a whole new level of destructive, divisive hate, the person behind those first cryptic notes was something of a mystery. But when it comes to the Big Lie—the claim that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election—the source of the disinformation, distortions, and big juicy whoppers isn’t difficult to pin down. It was Trump. And Trump’s lawyers. And Trump’s extended team.
As The Guardian makes clear, a study of social media has determined that it took just a handful of “super spreader” accounts to infect the entire Republican Party with a disease that led directly to the Jan. 6 insurgency. The accounts that did the most damage were not no-name accounts manned by people surfacing from the dark side of conspiracy land. In fact, of the top 21 accounts most responsible for spreading false information on Twitter, 15 were verified accounts. If that little blue checkmark was supposed to connote some kind of reliability, or to suggest that Twitter will in some sense hold the person behind the account to a higher standard … it clearly failed.
But it may not have been just social media that was acting as a gateway between the people spreading the Big Lie and those bashing down the doors of the Capitol. As The New York Times reports, the FBI has identified at least one direct connection between the Proud Boys and the Trump White House.
According to The Times, the FBI has learned that one member of the white supremacist group Proud Boys was in direct communication with someone in the White House in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 insurgency. That includes using “metadata”—so often a topic of concern to Sen. Josh Hawley—to directly connect a call made by a Proud Boy member with someone in the White House. Exactly who that might be, the FBI hasn’t yet made clear.
However, that same FBI contact who made this tie to a White House official also indicates that there was “no evidence of communications between the rioters and members of Congress during the deadly attack.” That comes as a surprise, considering how Rep. Lauren Boebert was providing text updates on actions inside the House chamber, and how others, like Hawley, have asked whether the FBI is looking into phone records of Congress members at every hearing on the Capitol assault.
So if the source behind The Times story is right—which is something that comes laden with a good deal of doubt, considering the reliability of past FBI-sourced claims at The New York Times—the connection between the people prowling the halls of Congress may have not been directly between those that were hiding elsewhere in the same building.
Though just who the Proud Boys were speaking with inside the White House isn’t made clear, the report published by The Guardian may provide some clues. The top offenders when it came to pumping out false information about the election included Trump, Donald Trump Jr, Eric Trump, and dead Venezuelan dictator fan Sidney Powell. Also on the list of worst offenders was perennial liar and pitiful video faker James O’Keefe. However, O’Keefe wouldn’t seem to be a candidate for the White House contact during the Pizzagate Putsch.
But then, it wasn’t just White House insiders getting calls from white nationalists. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio already made it clear that he was in contact with Roger Stone. That was an easy enough admission, because Tarrio put Stone on speakerphone, and let him talk to the rest of the violent racist extremist group. And Stone, of course, cheered them on. After all, a month after the attack on the Capitol, Stone stepped outside CPAC to make a rap video that describes the deadly attack as “patriots knocking on the Capitol.”
But Stone doesn’t appear to be the White House contact now identified as being in direct contact with the Proud Boys before the attack.
Also, just because the FBI may not have been able to find records of members of Congress egging on the assault while it was underway, this doesn’t mean that Republican legislators are in the clear. As The New York Times noted back in January, records show that almost all the groups who burst through the doors of the Capitol had riends on the inside. The Oath Keepers had connections to the openly racist Rep. Paul Gosar, as well as Rep. Andy Biggs. Before Boebert was giving her on-the-ground updates on the insurgency, she was making nice with the Three Percent militia group (as well as leading those mysterious tours). Rep. Matt Gaetz also made a personal appearance at a Proud Boys event.
What both reports make clear is that, whether it was social media or direct contact, the assault on the Capitol didn’t come from some twisted form of grassroots. This was a top-down operation, with agitation and coordination conducted from Republican politicians who nurtured and directed white supremacist for political purposes. Also … they’re not embarrassed about it. Not even a little bit.
But while Republicans in the Senate may have demonstrated that their ability to cover for Trump is infinite, the social media report does show something about how these companies can deal with disinformation that continues to be put forth, and what they can do right now. What it shows is that the most important step is, unsurprisingly, to rein in the most important people—those with the checkmark, and the follower count, that makes them best able to spread a lie.
In short, Twitter was right to shutter Trump’s account. They just should have done it about five years sooner.