In the biggest study of its kind so far, Harvard researchers say they've confirmed that most of the people who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were primarily motivated by former President Donald Trump and his appeals.
Researchers at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy manually went through 469 pages of federal court documents to reach this conclusion.
WBUR's Morning Edition host Rupa Shenoy speaks with Joan Donovan, study author and research director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center.
Below are highlights from their conversation, which have been lightly edited.
On what this study found motivated the rioters
"There was a lot of people who said, 'You heard it from him. The don is calling us to go to the Capitol.' People commenting, 'He said, it will be wild. It's up to us to make it wild.' And when Trump called for help, that's when we saw the most violent protests in a series of protests that we had seen at other capitals after Nov. 3 and before Jan. 6. So this wasn't completely unprecedented either, that there would be some violence in a capitol and that people would be trying to break in.
"It was essentially to, in any way, shape or form, prevent the certification of the election. And the people that were charged felt as if this was the last step or the last occasion that they would have to intervene. If you also look at the trajectory of all of the different lies that had been told — there was 'sharpie-gate,' there was 'dead people voted,' there were 'ballots were destroyed,' there were 'ballots were forged,' — here were so many different little lies along the way. So a lot of the rationale was backed up by this desperate attempt to save what they believe was a stolen election. We're talking about a very fissured and split, polarized society, in which there are different facts for different sets of motivations.
"We're very concerned about the moments when disinformation mobilizes people to take action. It's one thing if a bunch of people believe a lie like the moon landing was fake, for instance, if they're not going to do anything about it. It's not as harmful as if people feel like, 'Well, the only way to stop the theft of the 2020 election is to go to the Capitol and by any means necessary, prevent the certification of the election.' "
On how the study adds to the ongoing work of the House Select Committee hearings on the Jan. 6 attacks
"One of the reasons why we decided to put out the working paper was because of Representative Liz Cheney's opening statement about Trump being a large motivator. We felt this was a result of the evidence that they had been collecting and the data that they had been looking at. And we had independently had evidence that confirmed that. We thought that this was a neat little piece of knowledge that might be useful, not just for the Jan. 6 committee, but more so for the the [Department of Justice] and for other people, journalists and technologies that are trying to make sense of, 'Well, what were the different motivating factors?'
"Interestingly, way down on the list of motivating factors were things like: we almost had nearly the same amount of people that were interested in peaceful protest as were there for a general interest in violence. The way in which some had framed this Capitol riot as being lawlessness and without any logic or organization, we were able to show through the reading of these court documents that that just wasn't the case; that those people who were there for chaos were were a very small number compared to those who were there for very specific, motivated reasons."
On whether the findings might support a conclusion that Trump was culpable for Jan. 6
"What the findings show is a reflection of what's in these court documents: that many, many people went because Trump had called them to be there. Now it becomes tricky because criminal charges would have to say that Trump also knew that he was going to send them to do some kind of lawless activity — which I think the January 6 committee did a good job of showing that that all of the planners and all of the organizers knew that there was going to be a march to the Capitol. So it's my hope that anything we produce as a research team affords us more accountability for very powerful people in this world. But it remains to be seen if the DOJ is going to to heed the principle that nobody should be above the law."
This segment aired on July 27, 2022.