Former president Donald Trump’s supporters scrambled to defend him online in the hours after the Jan. 6 committee’s hearings began, seeking to sow doubt about his involvement via the same social media channels that had captured clear evidence linking him to the Capitol assault.
Trump War Room, a Twitter account once run by his reelection campaign, tweeted, “Trump and the rally had nothing to do with the Capitol breach!,” defying the House committee’s effort to pin responsibility for the riot squarely on Trump.
On the message board Patriots.win — a spinoff of TheDonald.win, where members had shared ideas on how to sneak guns into Washington before the riot — a popular thread Friday called Jan. 6 “the most patriotic thing I’ve ever seen” and said anyone who disagrees is “an enemy of the nation.”
And on pro-Trump channels on the chat service Telegram, supporters ridiculed the hearing as overly scripted or a partisan circus, if they mentioned it at all.
The outpouring of Trump support came in response to a hearing that brought together new testimony with previously unreleased footage to document both the gravity of the attack on the Capitol and Trump’s role in spurring it. It also underscored how the social media landscape has shifted in the 17 months since Trump was suspended by the leading online platforms for his role in fanning the violent attempts to overturn Joe Biden’s election as president.
For the most part, Trump and some of his most ardent backers were relegated to smaller platforms as they sought to respond.
The change was evident in the video montage the Jan. 6 committee showed of the attack, where a rioter could be heard shouting a Trump tweet over a megaphone to urge the crowd into the Capitol’s halls. The tweet, which Trump had sent minutes before, said that Vice President “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done” and that “USA demands the truth!”
Trump had used Twitter aggressively to rally his supporters to overturn what he falsely labeled a fraudulent election, tweeting in December 2020, “WE HAVE JUST BEGUN TO FIGHT!!!” and “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Those tweets were widely shared by his fans, and congressional investigators on Thursday shared video testimony from rioters who said they saw them as calls to action. On Dec. 13, 2020, the day before the electoral college planned to seal President Biden’s victory, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, emailed Arizona state lawmakers with links to a YouTube video, urging them to “put things right.”
On Jan. 6, 2021, Trump tweeted that states had “voted on a FRAUD. … BE STRONG!” It wasn’t until 2:38 p.m. that he finally urged the crowd via Twitter to “stay peaceful,” after rioters had already breached the Capitol in what a police officer said Thursday resembled a bloody “war scene.”
Later that evening, Trump tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots. … Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!” Two days later, Twitter and Facebook suspended his account, citing the risk that he would incite more violence.
An official inside Twitter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the topic, told The Washington Post on Friday that the company’s decision-makers had understood that Trump’s tweets were playing a role in encouraging violence, but had not known at the time that they were literally being read out loud by the rioters.
On Trump’s fledgling Twitter clone, Truth Social, he posted a dozen messages after the hearing, criticizing it for showing “only negative footage” of the brutal siege.
Starting at 6:50 a.m. Friday, Trump called former attorney general William P. Barr “weak and frightened” and deflected blame for the riot. He also spoke dismissively of his daughter Ivanka Trump, after she was shown on video at the hearing saying she believed there was no evidence of fraud that could overturn his loss.
She “was not involved in looking at, or studying, Election results,” he wrote. “She had long since checked out.”
Before the hearing, Trump wrote — or, in Truth Social lingo, “truthed” — that Jan. 6 “was not simply a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our Country.” The morning after, he wrote that the assault “was not caused by me, it was caused by a Rigged and Stolen Election!”
But Trump could only shout to a diminished crowd: His Truth Social account has about 3 million followers, or less than 4 percent of the 88 million Twitter followers he had before his ban.
Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, suggested that it would be difficult to overstate the importance of Trump’s tweets to the events of Jan. 6. “The power of Trump’s tweets to tell people, much like a military general, where to go and to keep the pressure on was clear to researchers,” she said. “And it was very clear when he tweeted about exiting the building and going in peace that people did start to listen and did follow his directives.”
The platforms’ response in the days after the attack took away much of that power, Donovan said. “It wasn’t just Trump that was deplatformed,” but thousands of his supporters, and the social network Parler was removed from major app stores. “Trump’s infrastructure for messaging was blown apart that day. And it hasn’t quite been able to reassemble.”
Whether the major social networks allow Trump to return could have a profound effect on his ability to reorganize for a 2024 run, Donovan added.
While Facebook and YouTube suspended him indefinitely, leaving open the possibility that he could be back, Twitter issued a permanent ban, and Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy said Friday that the company stands by that. However, the billionaire Elon Musk, who is in the process of acquiring Twitter, has said he would reinstate Trump.
Some users Friday argued that Truth Social, which has promoted itself as a free-speech sanctuary to rival what they call Twitter’s censorious “cancel culture,” had worked to squash discussion of the hearing outright.
Travis Allen, an information security analyst in Kentucky, said his Truth Social account was suspended minutes after he replied to Trump’s account there Thursday night with a reference to the Jan. 6 hearing.
Allen, who said he is not a Trump fan, said that he couldn’t remember specifically what he wrote but that he didn’t think it violated the site’s rules.
I didn’t “think the post was even notable,” he told The Washington Post on Friday. “It is the height of hypocrisy for Truth Social to claim to support ‘free speech’ and then ban users for talking about” the hearings.
Representatives for Trump Media & Technology Group, which owns Truth Social, did not respond to requests for comment.
The site on Friday did show some posts critical of Trump, though many others panned the congressional investigation as a “hoax.” In February, the site banned an account poking fun at former congressman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who resigned from Congress to become chief of the Trump company, with a salary of $750,000 a year.
Before the hearing, some pro-Trump influencers urged their online followers to ignore it. Conservative radio host Dan Bongino posted to his Truth Social account a few minutes before the hearing started, “Don’t miss the hockey game tonight, it’s must-see TV!” That online attitude matched their cable counterparts on Fox News, which showed little of the hearing and labeled it an “anti-Trump show trial” and a “sham.”
After the hearing, Trump allies sought to discount the committee’s findings — based on 1,000 interviews, 140,000 documents and hours of visual evidence — as biased or flawed. Ali Alexander, a conservative activist who’d organized a “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 and testified to the committee in December, said on Truth Social that the committee had used edited videos and fake audio, without giving any evidence to back up those claims. “Have you ever seen a video with more fake edits and SPLICES?” he wrote.
The committee’s video featured long strings of previously unseen footage from police body cameras and Capitol surveillance cameras that revealed brawls in grisly detail. “We can’t hold this. We’re going to get too many f---ing people. … We’re f---ed,” one officer said.
But much of the video also came from social media, like Parler, the right-wing social network popular then with Trump supporters. In one clip, a man in a crowd encircling officers steps from the Capitol screams, “We were invited by the president of the United States.”