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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Race to Preserve the DC Mob's Digital Traces

Some people in the pro-Trump mob that descended upon the US Capitol on Wednesday wore MAGA hats. Others waved Confederate flags, or bedecked themselves in Army surplus gear. An especially memorable member of the insurrection went shirtless, but wore a large Viking hat covered in fur and horns. One accessory was near-ubiquitous: a raised smartphone. An astounding number of the attackers openly documented themselves and their peers, taking selfies in the Rotunda, gleefully livestreaming their forced entry into the building, and smiling for cheeky photos on their way out, sometimes with trophies pilfered from congressional offices.

One man in the crowd, Derrick Evans, used Facebook Live to show his followers the break-in as it happened, standing shoulder to shoulder in a throng of attackers shouting “Whose house? Our house!” After rushing through a door, Evans hollered “Evans is in the Capitol,” a moment now digitally memorialized. More than 4,000 digital onlookers watched his feed. Some encouraged him in the comments. “We are so proud of all of you 🇺🇸❤️❤️❤️,” one woman wrote. It was one of countless simultaneous livestreams from the mob invading the nation’s congressional home, but Evans’ effort was notable because he himself is a lawmaker, a newly elected Republican state delegate from West Virginia.


Evans says that he was in the Capitol as “an independent member of the media.” (He did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.) Although he justified his decision to film, Evans took down his Facebook livestream; his Twitter account, meanwhile, has been suspended. (It’s unclear whether he had also posted footage there.) Other livestreams from participants have been removed by the platforms themselves, part of a scrambling effort by social media giants to scrub their feeds of footage like Evans’ stream. Facebook, for example, has deemed that the storming of the Capitol was a violation of its Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, and is removing both praise of the event and footage from its participants. It also blocked the hashtag “#StormTheCapitol.” YouTube, Twitch, and Twitter also removed footage from mob participants.

But as the social platforms—and some of the participants themselves, as they realize how incriminating some of their footage may be—are moving to hide this abundance of documentation, a countermovement of citizen journalists is working just as diligently to preserve the seditious streams and selfies.

West Virginia native Tanner McMullen caught Evans’ livestream after he saw a photo of people he knew on a bus with Evans, riding to Washington, DC. Aghast at what he saw on the video, McMullen decided to record his screen in an effort to make sure there was evidence of Evans’ behavior. “I knew he was going to delete it—he’s an elected official!” McMullen says. “I’d like to think that based on his position of power, he wouldn’t make such a poor decision, but I knew where it was leading.” McMullen posted his recording of Evans’ video to his own Facebook page, where both local and national news picked it up. “I’m glad it’s getting out there, because what he did is just asinine,” McMullen says.

In addition to individual efforts like McMullen’s, a variety of group projects have already started in earnest to preserve images of yesterday’s mob. The journalism and research collective Bellingcat quickly began to collect all videos, photos, and livestreams of the attack. “Measures that prevent the spread of these materials would certainly make sense, but outright removing them from your platform just banishes them to a digital ether beyond the reach of anyone but the platform's engineers,” Aric Toler, Bellingcat’s head of research and training, said in an email.

There is recent historical precedent that makes the importance of archiving this footage obvious. Back in 2017, Toler conducted a similar effort to catalog videos from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. By his estimation, users deleted nearly half of the clips within a few days of the event. “I archived almost all of them,” Toler says, “but if I hadn't, they'd just be gone, forever. I used a lot of these videos later to help identify some of the more violent types.” This included Daniel Borden, one of the men who would later be sent to prison for the beating of a Black man in a parking garage during the white supremacist rally.

The FBI is already calling for tips and footage to help them identify the people who went inside the Capitol building. “Law enforcement can look if they want—the same as anyone else—but we aren't going out of our way to share it with any law enforcement body,” Toler says. “We're just collecting footage that is already open source and out there into one place.”

There are now a number of different repositories for this footage, and Bellingcat isn’t the only group working on an archive. On Reddit, a group called DataHoarders began a similar effort, while a collective known as Woke is focused on archiving streaming footage, airing it on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, and keeping it for the historical record.

In the past, some citizen journalism efforts focused on open source sleuthing have made high-profile mistakes; for instance, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, online amateur sleuths incorrectly identified suspects, creating additional chaos. But the current crop of citizen journalists collating footage have more straightforward goals—they aim to act as archivists, not detectives.

Woke, for example, was founded during the Black Lives Matter protests this summer with the intention of both providing access to live feeds and archiving the actions. In the past six months, they’ve archived an estimated 30,000 streams from protests across the country. “The platforms are pretty notorious for pulling them down,” says Ryan Carmichael, a streamer who runs Woke’s Twitch channel, which had a half a million viewers yesterday.

During Wednesday’s riot, Woke pulled a variety of streams, from mainstream news organizations to right-wing figures on the ground, and broadcast them simultaneously, creating a collage of different perspectives on the event. “This is a new thing for the historic record, the fact that people are willingly making public video feeds from the front lines,” says Max Goodhart, another member of the Woke collective. “We see ourselves as curators.”

These curatorial efforts face a major obstacle: the social networks where they find their footage. Tech giants are under enormous pressure right now when it comes to how to handle right-wing extremists and President Trump, who used Twitter and Facebook to encourage the mob. They have taken unprecedented steps to moderate the president’s posts, and their quick action in removing riot footage speaks to how eager they are to appear proactive. But while enforcing their rules on the president may help prevent him from egging on his followers further, the rush to delete videos posted by those very followers may end up making them harder to hold accountable. Meanwhile, citizen journalists are stuck facing the same repercussions as the mobs they’re trying to document. Woke, for example, says its YouTube channel received a strike for posting footage of yesterday’s event, preventing it from uploading new clips for a week.

It’s these kinds of good-faith efforts to quell violence that may end up doing more harm than good. “The idea that it is dangerous for people to see footage of this event that we're seeing around the world is far-fetched to me,” says Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology. “Taking down footage of what happened yesterday seems, to me, like an unjustifiable capitulation.” With many major figures on the right already attempting to reframe yesterday’s events as an attack from leftists in disguise, it could also erase valuable documentation of who was actually there—something that many people will need to see.

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