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-trafficking 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.
The Trump insurrection came as close to succeeding as it did because of the power of the rightwing media ecosystem—and the willingness of its biggest players to work their audiences into a frenzy with lies and disinformation.
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 InfoWars 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 elaborate partisan media infrastructure for them to use instead. These rightwing outlets lacked the journalistic standards generally practiced within the mainstream, instead engulfing their audiences with a toxic mix of disinformation, conspiracy theories, explicitly partisan messaging, and endless warnings that the press could not be trusted.
This parallel media ecosystem, the Harvard scholars argued, had by 2016 become impenetrable, shielding its rightwing audience from bad news for and about Trump. His supporters could watch cable news networks like Fox News, listen to talk radio hosts like the late Rush Limbaugh, read websites like Breitbart .com, and emerge with a vastly distorted view of the day’s events that kept them firmly in his camp.
“If the real challenges come from inside the political system and consist of intentional political communication within a major wing of the American political system,” the Harvard scholars warned, “then the solution is far from obvious and interventions must confront the political origins of the problem.”
Over the past four years, these fears were confirmed. The rightwing ecosystem has become even more insular—and powerful.
Fox News is historically the primary cog in this machine. Its roster of stars and millions of devoted fans allow it to choose which stories gain purchase within the rightwing information network. But rivals including Newsmax TV and One America News Network (OAN) have emerged in recent years, courting their audiences with programming even further to the right. And all three cable news networks are at the end of a vast information food chain, in which misinformation is shared on message boards and social media feeds, gets algorithmically accelerated by platforms like Facebook and YouTube, passes through conspiracy sites like Gateway Pundit and the Epoch Times, and is laundered and legitimized by outlets like Breitbart.com and The Daily Caller.
Trump’s presidency supercharged this ecosystem. He personally consumed hours of rightwing media content each day, turning its particular obsessions into federal policy. He endorsed its stars, legitimizing everyone from Jones, whom he celebrated as “amazing,” to Limbaugh, whom he awarded the Medal of Freedom during the 2020 State of the Union address. Trump’s Twitter feed, until he was banned from the platform following the Capitol attack, was a firehose hooked up to the rightwing media reservoir, spewing links to posts from conspiracy sites, praise for Fox News hosts, promotions for their shows, and real-time responses to segments he enjoyed. Trump retweeted QAnon adherents more than 300 times.
The result was a massive, multiplatform radicalization engine, bombarding its audience of Trump supporters—from the President on down—with endless iterations on a potent theme: The malicious left threatens you and your way of life, and only Trump can protect you.
This rightwing media radicalization has repeatedly sparked acts of domestic terror. The organizer of the lethal white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; the Trump “superfan” who mailed explosive devices to leading progressives and media figures; the Proud Boys who attacked protesters outside a New York City Republican clubhouse in 2018; and the anti-immigrant extremist whose 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, left twenty-three people dead, all drew comfort and talking points from this media web.
In 2019, the FBI warned of the terror threat posed by QAnon, a dizzyingly complex extremist mythology and immersive alternate reality game which expands the Pizzagate conspiracy theory on a global scale. Its supporters claim that Trump was fighting a secret war against satanic, child-sex-trafficking Democratic politicians, government officials, and celebrities, which would end with their mass arrest and execution during an event followers termed “the Storm.”
QAnon cultists followed the conspiracy theory’s various twists and turns by deciphering rightwing message board posts by the pseudonymous self-proclaimed government official “Q,” which began in fall 2017. Advancing the hoax into the real world, they were repeatedly linked to violent attacks.
The QAnon cult grew and metastasized over the course of the Trump Administration, fueled by an array of social media influencers, podcasts, and websites. By late 2020, it boasted social media communities that numbered in the millions, and overlapped with a sizable chunk of the Trump base. Two Republican supporters were even elected to Congress—Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert.
The mainstream media is inherently limited in its ability to quell the growth of a rightwing extremist ideology like QAnon. Potential converts are unlikely to be reading negative QAnon coverage from outlets like NBC News or The New York Times—and, if they do, they are likely to be skeptical. But more traditional rightwing outlets like Fox News, who might have been able to reach them, gave the conspiracy theory kid-gloves coverage, with hosts either acting as if they didn’t know what it was about or openly pandering to its followers.
For example, long after it became clear that its adherents had participated in the January 6 insurrection, Fox primetime star Tucker Carlson was still pretending QAnon was a fabrication of the mainstream press. “We spent all day trying to locate the famous QAnon, which, in the end, we learned is not even a website,” he snarked on February 23. “If it’s out there, we could not find it.”
The increasingly agitated rightwing audience was primed to vote for the President’s re-election, and startlingly lucrative for the rightwing media. But on January 6, the fire they all stoked for years finally raged out of control.
Trump lost the 2020 election, and then tried to steal it. After spending the preceding months baselessly warning that it would be “rigged” by Democrats through massive voter fraud, the President falsely declared victory on election night, then tried to achieve in the courts what he couldn’t win at the ballot box.
There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and top federal, state, and local officials concluded that there were no election security problems. But Trump’s legal team rolled out a shambling mass of lies and deranged conspiracy theories about the election in hopes of creating enough confusion to give cover to Republican officials to subvert the will of the electorate and keep Trump in power.
The effort failed, and the states certified Biden’s victory. But it came as close to succeeding as it did because of the power of the rightwing media ecosystem—and the willingness of its biggest players to work their audiences into a frenzy with lies and disinformation.
Within that rightwing information bubble, it became virtually uncontested that the 2020 election was rife with voter fraud and that Trump actually won. A mutually reinforcing web of MAGA social media influencers, rightwing YouTube stars, prime-time Fox hosts, and conservative radio giants bombarded Republicans with a full-spectrum effort to undermine confidence in the election results.
In one such case of how the rightwing disinformation food chain functioned, an anonymous poster on the pro-Trump subreddit on the message board Reddit, r/The_Donald, produced an “analysis” claiming that millions of Trump votes had been deleted by the voting machine company Dominion Voting Systems. That analysis was written up by the pro-Trump conspiracy theory website Gateway Pundit, then lifted by the Fox rival OAN. Trump, watching the OAN segment from the White House, credulously tweeted about it in real time, spurring further coverage from larger outlets like Fox News and Fox Business.
Fox played a key role in building the Big Lie. When the network’s “decision desk” called the crucial swing state of Arizona for Biden on Election Night and declared the Democrat the President-elect on November 7, an angry Trump responded by urging his Twitter followers to switch to the network’s rightwing cable news rivals. To stave off a ratings collapse, both Fox’s news and opinion sides pushed conspiracy theories about the election and cast doubt on its results hundreds of times over the next few weeks.
Leading up to the January 6 insurrection, Fox’s audience heard claims that “many are trying to steal this election from President Trump”; assertions that “many Americans will never again accept the results of a presidential election”; declarations that “there’s good reason here not to have confidence or not to believe this is fair”; and arguments that “this is a war, this is a battle for the control of our government and for the future of this nation.”
This drumbeat had a huge impact, damaging trust in the U.S. election system. In poll after poll, large majorities of Republicans said that the election had been stolen from Trump.
But the President’s propagandists did not stop there. Leading members of the Trumpist media urged their audiences to be “angry,” “outraged,” “worried,” and “concerned,” and to prepare “to fight” the Democrats who are “stealing your nation from you.” They floated the use of violence to prevent Trump’s defeat, from trying to “surround” ballot-counting locations to exert a “demanding presence” to blockading a governor’s mansion to prevent the certification of votes, to starting a “second American Revolution” at the January 6 rally.
If you tell enough people that an election has been stolen from them and that the results endanger their future, some of them will be moved to action.
Since January 6, the architecture of radicalization that nurtured the Capitol insurrectionists has taken a few blows, but it remains largely intact.
The toxic role that outlets like Fox played in the January 6 insurrection spurred a re-examination of that ecosystem, with journalists and pundits across the political spectrum urging action. Calls for corporations to end their advertisements on the network or for cable carriers to remove them from their basic packages, once limited to leftwing activists, now have mainstream appeal. The networks and other chief propagators of election disinformation are also facing legal consequences for the lies they spread in the lead-up to the riots, with smeared voting-technology companies including Dominion filing multibillion-dollar lawsuits.
Some social media platforms took action to reduce the flow of disinformation and conspiracy theories following the insurrection, with Facebook and Twitter banning thousands of far-right accounts. Many also banned or restricted Trump himself in light of his incitement of the riots, including his beloved Twitter.
The Trump bans have largely stuck, though Facebook’s oversight board is assessing whether to ignore his misinformation and extreme rhetoric and give him access to his account again. But enforcement against his most radical supporters has proven spotty, and the reactive nature of the actions suggest the platforms will not be able to effectively combat new strains of violent disinformation. Meanwhile, QAnon influencers and other extremists quickly found new venues to spread their apocalyptic messages.
In the rightwing media ecosystem, there has been no reckoning at all. The ongoing ratings war between Fox, Newsmax TV, and OAN made that impossible. With Trump firmly in control of the GOP base, none of the major drivers of the ecosystem dared to risk their own viewership by blaming him for the attack—or acknowledging their own culpability.
Instead, the most powerful voices in rightwing media have spent the weeks since the insurrection minimizing the event. They vehemently denied that the events had been an armed insurrection or an attempted coup, and demanded that the nation move on. The widely reported evidence of white nationalists, QAnon adherents, Proud Boys, and other extremists were lies, they claimed. Instead, the rioters were Trump supporters who had valid concerns that got out of control—or the violence was actually committed by antifascist activists.
Left to their own devices, the rivalry between rightwing outlets will continue to create a race to the bottom of the fever swamps, as the networks compete against each other to attract an audience with paranoid and unhinged claims about Biden and his administration. The downstream effect of their competition is increasingly insurrectionist content beamed to millions of Americans, spurring future violence.
The architects of this ecosystem will not create guardrails of their own volition, not even if the alternative is the destruction of U.S. democracy.