After being incited by President Trump, his followers attacked the nation’s capital. After the mob departed, some Republican legislators emerged from hiding and responded to the attack by accusing Antifa of being behind it. This echoed the right-wing media’s narrative about a false flag operation. While there does seem to have been at least one left-wing activist at the capitol, the Antifa claim has been utterly debunked. But the idea of a false false flag is an interesting matter.
A false flag operation is an action conducted with the intention of disguising the identity of those responsible and placing the blame on another party. There are numerous historical examples of such operations, which often involved ships attempting to deceive enemy combatants about their identity. There are also cases in which nations use false flag operations as a pretext to start a war: the nation wishing to start a war engages in an attack that is made to look like action taking by the nation they want to go to war with.
In the context of domestic American politics, a false flag operation would involve members of one political affiliation or organization conducting an operation while identifying as members of another affiliation or organization. For example, if a white nationalist put on a BLM t-shirt and went to a BLM protest to vandalize property and thus get BLM blamed, then that would be a false flag operation.
In the case of the assault on the capitol, the claim put forth by some on the right is that those who engaged in and incited violence at the capital were either Antifa masquerading as Trump supporters or that Antifa members masquerading as Trump supporters incited Trump supporters to engage in violence against people and property.
As noted above, it does appear that at least one left-wing activist was encouraging the insurrectionists. This person denied association with Antifa but did say he believed that black lives matter. While I should not need to point out the blindingly obvious, the fact that there was one left-winger present at the attack does not prove that it was a false flag operation by the left. One obvious reason is that this person identified themselves as a left-winger (though this would need to be confirmed). Another obvious reason is that generalizing from the presence of one leftist to all or most of the mob would be a hasty generalization in the extreme. Evidence would be needed of a significant false flag left wing presence. And, as noted above, the FBI is certain that this is not the case.
Florida’s disgraceful Matt Gaetz did advance the false claim that facial recognition software identified Antifa at the insurrection. But the company he mentioned replied with the truth: the software recognized neo-Nazis and a QAnon believer rather than Antifa. Gaetz’ false claim cannot, obviously, support the conclusion that Antifa was behind the attack.
The right-wing media and people on social media have pointed to photos purporting to show that people who were at the capitol attack also attended leftist events, such as BLM protests. From a critical thinking standpoint there are two main concerns with such photos. The first is that any photo of this type would need to be analyzed to determine that it has not been modified. Anyone with basic Photoshop skill can easily create a realistic looking fake image in minutes. The second is that there is a crucial difference between being photographed at a BLM protest and being part of the protest. After all, people who are hostile to BLM do attend BLM protests but are not participants. To use an obvious example, there are photos showing Kyle Rittenhouse at a BLM protest—but he is not a BLM activist or Antifa. This does lead to the epistemic concern of knowing whether a person is affiliated with a group or ideology or engaging in a deception to conduct false flag operations.
Since I teach epistemology, I know that skeptical arguments can easily be made against knowing anything. But such philosophical skepticism has little practical value in this context. That is, while we might not know whether a rioter is a robot or a Trump supporter, this is not a serious concern. What is of concern is sorting out, in practical terms, affiliations when making claims about responsibility.
The FBI and other credible sources who claim that Antifa was not behind the attack presumably look at the people involved and examine their history. Social media and the surveillance state make this extremely easy. For example, Trump’s supporters have claimed that the horned hat wearing ‘Q Shaman’ who attacked the capitol is an Antifa agent. While this is not logically impossible (just as his being an alien or a robot is not logically impossible) his known history shows that he is a devoted QAnon supporter who has been documented counter protesting BLM protests. While Trump supporters simply say he is Antifa, there is no evidence of his being involved with Antifa or BLM (aside from opposing both). Given the evidence showing that he is what he claims to be, the burden of proof is on the Trump supporters. If they have evidence that he is Antifa, then they can easily provide it. The claim that he is not Antifa has already been supported. One could make up stories about how he is a super deep Antifa operative who spent years creating a false persona just for such an occasion, but this would require evidence—the mere possibility is not enough. After all, one could just as easily say that every act of violence at a BLM protest was caused by Trump supporters and that any evidence to the contrary is just proof that they have the deepest of covers. This would, of course, be absurd.
While evidence might surface of Antifa involvement, there is currently no proof that Antifa was involved in any meaningful way. The evidence all shows that the attackers were almost all Trump supporters (except for the one person mentioned earlier). A such, the right has been using the false false flag strategy.
The false flag strategy is, as suggested above, is to falsely claim that an event is a false flag event. The intention is to switch responsibility. In this case, the intent was to shift blame from Trump and Trump supporters to Antifa. This method can be effective. In this situation, the right was quick to place blame on Antifa and people tend to believe what they hear first and undoing a false belief is much harder than creating one. This strategy is also aided by confirmation bias: those who are favorable to Trump or who dislike Antifa will tend to believe (alleged) evidence that benefits Trump or matches their feelings about Antifa. Repetition is also an important factor: the false Antifa claim was widely disseminated and repeated across the right-wing news and social media. People tend to believe what they hear repeated, and the Antifa claim is no exception. There are, of course, people who know what they are claiming is a lie—they are not the deluded victims of a false false flag tactic but its perpetrators.
The defense against such false false flags is, as with other such things, to be critical when accepting claims and to seek independent confirmation from credible sources. Unfortunately, those most likely to believe such claims are the least likely to think critically about them—for obvious reasons.