To justify the actions of President Donald Trump’s supporters Wednesday, the president’s supporters in Montana are helping to spread a false narrative that outside organizations caused the riot in Washington, D.C.
And some Montana politicians who have promoted misinformation in the past are taking this falsehood from social media and helping it spread.
State Senator Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, wrote in a Facebook post that she suspected there were people other than Trump supporters in the crowd. Manzella has shared posts supporting Trump’s false assertion the election was stolen from him.
In an email to the Missoulian on Friday, Montana Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, objected to the newspaper’s reporting that supporters of President Trump trashed the United States Capitol, writing, “I doubt you’ve interviewed anyone who can confirm that those at the US Capitol who engaged in destruction were actually Trump supporters.”
On his Facebook page, Tschida has shared false information about treatments for the coronavirus as well as about the legitimacy of the election.
Tschida did not respond to requests to refute Trump’s own words to supporters during the riot, or the resignation letter of Cabinet member Betsy DeVos, who wrote to Trump: “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me. Impressionable children are watching all of this, and they are learning from us.”
Joan Donovan is the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and studies disinformation — the purposeful sharing of false information online with the intent to mislead and confuse people.
For example, Donovan said people online have spread a disinformation campaign to blame antifa for what happened at the Capitol. But this is contrary to the “hours of footage from the night before that were on livestream of people talking about how they need to save the president and storm the Capitol,” Donovan said.
“There’s just been an overwhelming amount of evidence, as well as Trump saying, ‘We’re going to the Capitol,’ that point us in the direction of who to blame,” Donovan said.
A fractured narrative
Social media platforms played an integral role in mobilizing thousands of people to attend the Stop The Steal rally. In the Facebook group Montana Patriots United, one user said they had room for two adults in a vehicle leaving from Kalispell on Jan. 2. The post said the group planned to meet up with a convoy of other people traveling to D.C.
Groups such as Montana Patriots United helped to spread narratives about a stolen election. However, the narrative about what happened at the Capitol appears to be more fractured than what encouraged people to attend the rally on Jan. 6.
A Facebook profile that appears to belong to Missoula County Deputy Sheriff Ryan Dunster appeared to outright defend the actions of those at the Capitol. Dunster shared a post calling the woman who died after breaking into the U.S. Capitol Wednesday an “innocent girl.” Dunster did not return calls from the Missoulian asking for comment.
“The Mayor called out the national guard and called for a national emergency as we the people are watching with our own eyes that the protesters did storm the capitol but hurt no one,” Dunster’s post read.
The insurrection at the Capitol left five dead, including a Capitol police officer. At least 50 law enforcement officers were also injured.
The Chairman of the Montana GOP, Don Kaltschmidt, outright condemned what happened at the Capitol.
“Any and all acts of violence have absolutely no place in this great country and certainly do not represent the principles or values of the Montana Republican Party,” Kaltschmidt said in a statement on Jan. 6.
But Tschida compared the actions at the Capitol to the actions of protesters over the summer. In his email, Tschida said what happened at the Capitol was “wrongdoing on a lesser scale than Antifa and BLM folks engaged in this past summer, on a radically larger and more destructive level."
Where are we going?
It is still unclear how these narratives will stick and what the future will hold for the U.S., said Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington.
Starbird was part of the Election Integrity Partnership, a collaboration of security tech companies and universities that monitored disinformation related to the 2020 election. What happens next depends on what certain organizations and people do, including Trump, media outlets and social media platforms, Starbird said.
“There’s some really interesting players that have decisions to make that can really change how certain audiences come back to a shared reality or continue off into alternative realities,” Starbird said.
People with political power in different parts of the government are still announcing objections to the election based on false conspiracy theories, Starbird said.
One such politician is Montana U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, who continues to peddle the false idea that some state results aren't accurate.
“I don’t feel like we’re in a safe moment,” Starbird said. “Things might feel like, this is a horrible thing and we’re dealing with it, it’s almost like a little bit of a pressure release. But I’m not sure that pressure doesn’t build up again and come to a head again.”