From Pizzagate to the Capitol Riot: How rightwing media extremism led to the January 6 insurrection.

AuthorGertz, Matt

Edgar Welch wasn't looking for pizza or garlic knots when he walked into Comet Ping Pong, a popular restaurant in northwest Washington, D.C., on December 4, 2016. As he later told police, the twenty-eight-year-old father had traveled from Salisbury, North Carolina, on a mission to find victims of a child-sex-traff icking ring imprisoned in tunnels beneath the pizzeria by prominent Democratic politicians.

Welch came armed with three firearms, including an assault-style rifle which he used to terrify Comet's customers and workers. He discharged the weapon within the premises three times as he searched for an entrance to the secret chamber.

There was, as it turned out, no sex-trafficking ring or child victims or Democratic satanists or secret tunnels. Comet doesn't even have a basement. Welch was a fan of Alex Jones, the rightwing radio host whose Info Wars website is ground zero for U.S. conspiracy theorists, and had come to believe in "Pizzagate," one of Jones's most bizarre lies.

Pouring over supposed clues in the emails stolen from John Podesta and published by WikiLeaks a couple of months before, deranged would-be Internet sleuths on message boards like Reddit and 4chan had concluded that the chair of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign was part of a pedophilic cult centered in the Washington restaurant. After attention from Jones and a slew of fake news websites helped the hoax go viral, Comet's employees were bombarded by threatening phone calls from Pizzagaters. Now that lie had nearly led to a body count.

Four years later, on January 6, Jones marched on the U.S. Capitol in the service of a different rightwing lie: that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump. Jones had rallied listeners to join him at protests in Washington, D.C., by invoking the American Revolution.

Jones and his followers were joined that day by a crowd of thousands, including Oath Keeper militia men and neofascist Proud Boys, QAnon cultists, fringe-right social media influencers and grifters, and run-of-the-mill MAGA supporters. Members of this throng were united in their support for Trump and in their intractable belief in his Big Lie that Democrats had rigged the election for now-President Joe Biden.

At Trump's instigation, a riotous mob of his followers, many of them armed, advanced on the Capitol, where they overwhelmed law enforcement. The attack left about 140 officers injured and five people dead, and could have been much worse. It was an armed insurrection aimed at the overturning of a presidential election, its various strands held together by a vast and powerful rightwing media apparatus that pumps out vitriol and disinformation to tens of millions of Americans every day.

And that media apparatus is only becoming more extreme, raising the prospect of further acts of domestic terror, like the attacks on a humble pizzeria and on the U.S. Capitol that bookended the Trump Administration.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, journalists and pundits struggled to explain the political rise and unexpected electoral success of Donald Trump, a man unqualified, unprepared, and manifestly unfit for the presidency. Some scrutinized novel developments in the media ecosystem, among them "fake news" sites operated by profit-seeking Macedonian teens, Russian propaganda vehicles, and the prospect that the dizzying array of news sources had simply left the public unable to discern fact from fiction.

But a group of scholars at Harvard University, after analyzing more than two million stories related to the election from more than 70,000 outlets, proposed a more traditional--and harrowing--explanation: The media ecosystem had bifurcated.

The majority of U.S. voters, who supported Hillary Clinton, consumed news produced by a mainstream network of outlets that serve audiences ranging from the center right to far left. But Trump's voters, the Harvard team explained, were getting their information almost entirely from a rightwing ecosystem that exists distinct from, and often in opposition to, that mainstream network.

Conservative leaders spent decades telling their supporters not to believe reporting from mainstream news sources and building an...

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