Washington (AFP) - Donald Trump's call for protests over his potential indictment in a hush-money case has sparked conspiracy theories about an FBI setup among some of his far-right supporters, making them reluctant to show up.
Numerous online posts reviewed by AFP cautioned against demonstrations in New York City, warning of law enforcement "traps" aimed at arresting them.Many recycled false claims about federal agents instigating the January 6, 2021 attack by Trump followers on the US Capitol.
"Is the potential protest against Trump being arrested a J6-style trap?" Paul Joseph Watson, an editor at InfoWars, a conspiratorial website, asked in a poll on Trump's Truth Social platform.
Of 1,580 responses, 85 percent answered yes -- prompting far-right websites such as the Gateway Pundit to run stories rehashing conspiracy theories about FBI agents and the Capitol riot.
When a popular Telegram channel devoted to the QAnon conspiracy theory -- whose followers Trump has increasingly courted since he left the White House two years ago -- asked if people would protest, hundreds replied with matching skepticism.
"NO……IT IS ANOTHER JANUARY 6th TRAP!!!" one user wrote.
Another QAnon promoter shared a photo of FBI agents to his Telegram channel's 185,000 subscribers, saying they were "the only ones that'll be out protesting for Trump." A similar image circulated in a channel affiliated with the Proud Boys militia group.
Republican heavyweights such as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have urged against protests while backing Trump's claims that an indictment would be unjust.But other lawmakers have joined in promoting baseless theories.
"How many Feds/Fed assets are in place to turn protest against the political arrest of Pres Trump into violence?" Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted.
"Has Ray Epps booked his flight to NY yet?" the Georgia Republican added, referencing an Arizona man accused of working for the FBI after he was filmed outside the Capitol in 2021.
The narrative's spread amid Trump's intensifying legal woes underscores the sticking power of disinformation.
"Many QAnon and Trump supporters are leery of joining protests over concerns of a setup or trap similar to what they believe occurred during the January 6 insurrection," said Carla Hill, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
"They are paranoid about engaging in any sort of large-scale events out of fear that Antifa or FBI will come in and cause violence 'as an excuse' to arrest (them)."
'You will be jailed or worse'
New York officials tightened security after Trump claimed he would soon be arrested in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's probe into a 2016 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels.Bragg has said Trump created a "false expectation" for his followers.
But while Trump's plea for protests prompted some sporadic calls for violence, traffic jams and acts of civil disobedience on fringe forums such as The Donald, even some of his best-known supporters have so far appeared unmoved.
Ali Alexander, who helped organize rallies that preceded the Capitol riot, signaled he will be staying away from demonstrations this time around and warned of New York City: "You will be jailed or worse."
And Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, who before the 2021 riot said his group was bussing Trump supporters to Washington, cautioned: "Do not give the feds and their plants what they want -- STAY PEACEFUL!"
Megan Squire of the Southern Poverty Law Center told AFP the posts are "another example in a long history of paranoia and finger-pointing on the extreme far right."
Fox News host Tucker Carlson and other prominent conservatives have repeatedly amplified the narrative that the FBI orchestrated the Capitol insurrection to jail Trump voters, despite fact-checking from AFP and others.More than 1,000 people have been charged for their actions that day, according to the Justice Department.
Trump has also lent credence to such claims, sharing posts about Epps and a "false flag."
"This type of entrapment or false flag conspiracy from the far-right has been a common refrain that we've seen since January 6," Hill said."If you look back on potential flashpoints -- Biden's inauguration, the anniversary of January 6, the FBI raid at Mar-a-lago -- the calls for protests quickly fizzled out because of this type of conspiratorial paranoia."