Fact check: Elon Musk amplifies false claim that Jan. 6 video was ‘censored’
By Daniel Dale, CNN
A conservative commentator with a substantial Twitter following went viral late last week by making false claims about the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 — and Twitter owner Elon Musk amplified some of the misinformation, pushing it to millions of people.
The conservative commentator, Chuck Callesto, inaccurately tweeted that various publicly available videos of January 6 had been “censored.” Musk amplified one of these claims. Callesto also put inaccurate captions on other January 6 footage to push a baseless narrative that the riot perpetrated by Trump supporters was actually carried out by left-wing Antifa activists.
Here is a fact check of three of Callesto’s tweets.
A comedian, not Antifa
On Friday, Callesto tweeted a video of a man who was putting on pro-Trump attire and urging another man to do the same in order to “blend in.” Callesto wrote: “JUST IN: Previously censored video re-emerges showing ANTIFA members dressing up a Trump supporters in DC…”
Facts First: False. This was no Antifa video, and it had not been censored. The man dressing up as a Trump supporter on camera is comedian Walter Masterson, who regularly mocks the far-right and went to Capitol Hill with a colleague on January 6 with the intention of producing humorous interview content. Masterson’s extended footage, including the part where he puts on the pro-Trump outfit and talks about blending in, has been on YouTube for more than two years. He responded on Twitter on Friday: “I was at Capitol Hill on Jan 6. I documented my entire time there. I even live streamed it. My videos received millions of views on every platform. Yet 2 years later Q-Anons take my videos and scream AHA. WE FOUND HIM!”
Callesto has more than 450,000 followers on Twitter, and this false tweet had been viewed more than 9 million times as of Wednesday — though some of the views came after a fact check had been attached to the tweet by Twitter’s “community notes” crowdsourcing feature. Callesto tweeted his own correction on Saturday, which had only about 31,400 views as of Thursday.
Asked by CNN on Tuesday about the three inaccurate tweets being fact-checked in this article, Callesto responded in a Twitter message: “As you see they were corrected unlike much of the disinformation that has circulated for years from both sides.” He said that “the truth is what we all seek (well most of us) regardless of our political beliefs.”
Trump supporters, not Antifa
Also on Friday, Callesto tweeted a video that showed rioters breaching the Capitol, mostly wearing what appeared to be black clothing. One carried a Confederate flag.
Callesto wrote: “Previously Censored video re-emerges of people resembling ANTIFA IN BLACK CLAD making the initial breach into the Capitol.” He added, as he did in many of his other tweets about January 6, “WON’T SEE THIS ON CNN.”
Facts First: This video had been artificially darkened, making the rioters’ clothing look much more solidly black than it actually was; the original video shows that these rioters were wearing a variety of colors and outfits. That original video was not “censored.” In fact, it did appear on CNN more than two years ago, when it was played by Democrats during Trump’s second impeachment trial. And there is no basis for any suggestion that this group of rioters might have been Antifa. Several of the rioters in the clip, including the man carrying the Confederate flag, have been identified as Trump supporters. It is abundantly clear from the roughly 1,000 arrests so far that the insurrection was perpetrated by ardent Trump devotees; some of them have explicitly debunked the conspiracy theories that they are “Antifa” members.
Callesto deleted this tweet after it had received more than 763,000 views (again, some of them after a “community notes” fact check had been added). He told CNN on Tuesday, “Whoever darkened the images did a disservice to anyone shedding light on the events of that day.” It is not clear who originally did the darkening or why, though similarly darkened videos of that moment have circulated among January 6 conspiracy theorists on social media since 2021.
The Chansley video wasn’t ‘censored’
Callesto also tweeted a video of Jacob Chansley, the so-called “QAnon Shaman,” who was sentenced to 41 months in prison in late 2021 after he pleaded guilty to obstructing an official proceeding of Congress on January 6. The video showed Chansley standing just outside the Capitol building and vehemently urging people to heed Trump’s call to go home.
Callesto wrote, “JUST IN: Censored video re-emerges of Jacob Chansley reading Trump’s tweet, telling protestors to GO HOME and remain peaceful.”
Musk shared the tweet and added, “Free Jacob Chansley.” Thanks in large part to Musk, who has more than 131 million followers on Twitter, Callesto’s tweet had received more than 58 million views as of Thursday, while the Chansley video itself had received more than 12 million views.
Facts First: The claim that this video of Chansley had been “censored” is false. The video was taken by Pam Hemphill, another participant in the Capitol breach, who told CNN in an interview on Monday that there had been “no” censorship of the video and that she had repeatedly shared clips of Chansley’s “go home” comments on social media over the last two years without any interference. (Hemphill said, “My attorney said they’re mine and I’m free to share whatever I want.”) In addition, the fact that Chansley had echoed Trump’s “go home” message outside the Capitol — after he illegally interrupted the counting of the electoral votes inside the Capitol — has been public knowledge for more than two years. Footage of Chansley’s comments was made available by numerous government entities and media outlets, sometimes to show how January 6 rioters appeared to be responsive to Trump’s wishes.
Some of Hemphill’s footage of Chansley’s “go home” remarks was tweeted out by a local news reporter two days after the riot, as a spokesperson for the online “Sedition Hunters” community pointed out to CNN this week; that tweet remains online. In February 2021, Democrats at Trump’s impeachment trial played a different clip of Chansley exhorting people to “go home.” CNN aired a segment that same month that featured footage of Chansley explaining on January 6 why he was promoting Trump’s “go home” message.
In a May 2021 court filing, Chansley’s lawyers cited another YouTube video of the same scene Hemphill captured. Prosecutors included Hemphill’s extended footage as an exhibit in her sentencing proceedings in May 2022, and it was then added to an online archive by the “Sedition Hunters.” A clip of Chansley shouting “go home” was played in July 2022 at a public hearing of the House select committee that investigated the January 6 attack. And the House committee mentioned these comments in its final report in December 2022.
After CNN informed Callesto on Tuesday that the footage he tweeted was Hemphill’s, Callesto tweeted that information to his followers but kept the original tweet with the false “censored” claim online. This follow-up tweet had fewer than 150,000 views as of Thursday morning, a small fraction of the tens of millions of views on the original.
More on Chansley’s actions
Chansley was arrested, and pleaded guilty, over what he did at the Capitol before he decided to urge people to “go home.”
Hemphill’s footage was taken after 4:17 pm on January 6, when Trump tweeted out a video urging rioters to “go home.” That was more than two hours after federal prosecutors say Chansley entered the Capitol as “one of the first 30 rioters inside” and riled up the crowd with a bullhorn instead of obeying a police order to leave.
Chansley has gained renewed attention this month in large part because Fox host Tucker Carlson played surveillance footage, supplied to him by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, that showed police walking alongside Chansley as he was about to enter the Senate chamber. Musk, who did not respond to a CNN request for comment this week, cited this footage, as well as Hemphill’s “go home” cries, in calling for Chansley’s release.
But federal prosecutors said in a subsequent court filing that the “snippets” of footage Carlson played didn’t show how Chansley breached a police line outside the Capitol, was part of the initial breach of the building, or “confronted law enforcement for roughly 30 minutes just outside the Senate Chamber doors while elected officials, including the Vice President of the United States, were fleeing from the chamber” — nor how Chansley screamed obscenities and refused to heed an officer’s requests to leave the Senate floor until law enforcement arrived “en masse” to remove him.
Prosecutors also said that the outnumbered Capitol Police had been in “triage mode” by the time Chansley was seen walking to the Senate, focused on dealing with “the most violent” rioters in the building and denying entry to people outside.
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Andrew Kaczynski contributed to this article.