A group of right-wing websites and social media personalities, some with hundreds of thousands of followers, claimed that Black Lives Matter protesters “stormed” Iowa’s state Capitol last week.
Some of them explicitly claimed that the protesters had forced their way into the building. Another suggested that what happened in Des Moines was “exactly” like what had happened at the US Capitol in Washington on January 6.
It wasn’t. Not even close. Because the Iowa protesters didn’t storm the state Capitol.
Facts First: Unlike the people who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, the Iowa protesters walked lawfully through security — getting their belongings scanned and their temperatures checked. The Iowa protesters even had a permit to protest in the building. The building is open to the public anyway. And the protesters did not disrupt legislative proceedings once they were inside.
The saga of the imaginary Iowa Capitol-storming offers another troubling example of how even unsophisticated lies can hurtle around the web faster than the truth. It also shows, once more, how the right-wing disinformation ecosystem often operates: A false initial claim gets shared over and over, reaching an ever bigger audience, by people and publications uninterested in doing even basic research to see if that initial claim is true.
Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said that “there are certain right-wing influencers that act as a catalyst for a cascade of inaccurate claims.” These influencers, she said, will tweet an image or video with a false description attached, inaccurately shaping perceptions of a breaking news event. Other influencers aligned with them will then “repeat the lie across blogs and social media,” Donovan said in an email.
“When the claim is inevitably debunked, these disinformation pushers either double down and say the mainstream media is lying or chalk it up to the chaos of breaking news. Sadly, the public, and movements like Black Lives Matter, are the ones who pay the price for amplified disinformation-at-scale,” Donovan said. “Social media companies know how this pattern works but have done little to prevent it from happening time and time again.”
What happened in the Iowa Capitol
The proposals would, among other things, increase penalties for protest-related offenses, provide additional legal protection to police officers and new civil immunity to people who inadvertently hit protesters with their cars, deny state funding to local governments that cut their police budgets by a bigger percentage than they cut their overall budgets and prohibit public entities from conducting mandatory training or teaching school curriculums that promote various “divisive concepts,” such as that the US and Iowa are systematically racist or sexist.
Protesters had a permit for both outside and inside the building. As a Facebook livestream video from one of the protesters showed, and as Iowa journalists on the scene noted later, the protesters walked in one by one through a security checkpoint. Protest co-organizer Angelina Ramirez told CNN that, prior to their entry, she and a colleague “asked Capitol security and Iowa State Patrol how they would prefer us to funnel into the security line, hence the single-file line.”
Once the protesters made their way through security, they shouted, chanted and lay on the floor for 9 minutes and 29 seconds to symbolize the death of George Floyd last May.
One protester was arrested and charged with assaulting an Iowa State Patrol officer. The officer claimed the 18-year-old high school senior “grabbed” and “pushed” him after she repeatedly asked for his name and badge number, causing him to momentarily lose his balance, and that other protesters behaved “belligerently” in response to the arrest.
Other protesters told CNN that any physical contact with the officer was inadvertent and minor, that the arrest was unjustified and that the officer used excessive force.
Regardless of what happened in the incident, the Iowa Capitol certainly wasn’t “stormed” — much less the site of the “insurrection” some right-wing commentators claimed had occurred.
Jeff Angelo, a former Republican state senator in Iowa, devoted part of his Des Moines radio show on Friday to a debunking of the claims that the state Capitol had been targeted by an insurrection, noting repeatedly that the protesters were legally present and that loud and heated protests are commonplace in the building. Angelo attributed the false claims about what had happened on Thursday to “some hard feelings about what went on January 6th at the Capitol” and “a right-wing national media that likes these kind of clicks.”
“Trying to call this an insurrection, and compare it to January 6th — that, my friends, is just ridiculous. They went through the metal detectors, they got their temperatures checked, they had a right to protest. If some of ’em got out of line — then the state Capitol police did their job,” Angelo said.
How this lie spread
At 1:50 p.m. on Thursday, a Twitter account using the alias CIA-Simulation Warlord posted a video clip captioned, “Happening Now: BLM at the Iowa State Capitol building.”
At 2:18 p.m., a Twitter account using the alias Suburban Black Man tweeted the same 70-second clip. Though the clip showed only peaceful protest — some protesters were shouting, others lying on the floor — the Suburban Black Man account claimed that Black Lives Matter protesters had “forced their way into the Iowa State Capitol building. Looks A LOT like an insurrection.”
Again, that isn’t true. But the truth didn’t seem to matter to some.
Within 40 minutes of the Suburban Black Man tweet, The Gateway Pundit, a far-right website with a long history of promoting baseless conspiracy theories, echoed Suburban Black Man’s false claim in an article — asserting that “Black Lives Matter militants stormed the Iowa State Capitol” and had “forced their way into the building.” Seven minutes later, a Canada-based conservative website, the Post Millennial, published an article that began, “BLM activists have appeared to force their way into Iowa’s State Capitol building.”
Right-wing personality David J. Harris Jr., who had more than 595,000 Twitter followers as of Monday, soon repeated the false claim that the Iowa Capitol was stormed. So did a right-wing personality with more than 260,000 followers as of Monday, Ian Miles Cheong, who linked to the Post Millennial article. Other right-wing websites, including National File and The New American, also amplified the claim that day.
By the late afternoon, Iowa journalists from Iowa Public Radio, the Des Moines Register and the Ames Tribune had all debunked the claim that the Capitol had been stormed. But the next morning, Andy Ngô, a Post Millennial editor-at-large who had more than 800,000 Twitter followers as of Monday, repeated the claim.
Protest co-organizer Harold Walehwa told CNN he was “frustrated and not surprised” when he saw the false “storming” claims go viral.
Former President Donald Trump, various Republican members of Congress, and right-wing websites and personalities have made a determined effort — both before and after Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol — to portray left-wing and Black Lives Matter activists as a major threat to the country.
“I feel like there was a desperate attempt to discredit our goals and to paint people of color as violent insurrectionists,” Walehwa said in an email. He added that “we had a permit to be there.”