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Jan. 8, 2021, 11 a.m.
Audience & Social

After the Capitol riots, platforms, archivists, conspiracists, and investigators collide

“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. “

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This regular roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Some of the entries in our 2021 predictions package proved gloomily prescient this week as a mob stormed the Capitol, incited by Trump’s baseless claims that he won the election.

“A lot of America slipped into conspiracy thinking during this pandemic, and they got there from yoga Instagrams and NFL forums and private church choir Facebook groups that were systematically invaded by QAnon and anti-vax recruiters,” NBC’s Ben Collins had written in his prediction. “It’s going to be a rude awakening in the next few months as we find out which of our friends got sucked into truly astonishing tales of New World Orders and Great Resets that helped them cope — and just so happen to be spectacularly wrong.”

Now, the search is on for the identities of the participants in Wednesday’s insurrection. That task is more difficult than it needs to be. Capitol police did little to prepare for the events of January 6, though they had been announced and planned publicly online and promoted by Trump himself on Twitter. When the riots happened, Capitol Police did little to deter or detain members of the mob, arresting only 14 people on Wednesday. Five deaths so far have been linked to the riots, including the death of a Capitol Police officer on Thursday night. (The Capitol Police chief resigned Thursday.)

That means much identification of participants is happening after the fact — and online. At The Verge, Russell Brandom wrote:

For years, police have been warning about the dangers of crowdsourced detective work — but on Thursday morning, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) of Washington, DC decided to do just that. In the wake of an unprecedented mob attack on the Capitol building, the MPD has released an open call for help identifying subjects. The department has circulated a digital booklet featuring 26 pages of faces from the attack, with a hotline number for anyone who can help identify them. The FBI has made a similar request, although neither agency has produced any arrests as a result of the photos.

The alarming nature of the attack, combined with the failure of Capitol Police to detain or process the intruders, has led to a nationwide digital manhunt. The event was captured in hundreds of photos, videos, and live streams, revealing the faces of dozens of perpetrators. Now, researchers are rushing to identify and prosecute those faces as a way to reassert control, drawing a wealth of tweets, live streams, and Instagram posts into an open-source almanac of everyone who can be reliably tied to the attack. It’s a more reliable version of the internet detective work that crashed and burned in earlier online communities — but this time, the footage is spread across hundreds of different sources, and the police are in on the job.

Bellingcat is seeking to collect “all visual materials of the storming of the Capitol.” Redditors are doing similar work to archive the riots.

Internet detective work has gone very wrong in the past. This time is different, Brandom wrote:

[The] work seems to be proceeding more carefully and successfully. In fact, many of the people in the MPD’s digital lineup have already been identified through this kind of open-source detective work. One of the most prominent figures in the Senate chamber — seen both roaming the halls and posing on the Senate dais — was identified early by journalist Will Sommer, who recognized him as QAnon promoter Jake Angeli. Others like Jason Tankersley (a member of the Maryland Skinheads) were identified by anti-fascist activists who recognized the man from previous white supremacist rallies.

Participants also included people’s friends and neighbors. One member of the mob on Jan. 6 was Ashli Babbott, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran and QAnon supporter who was shot by Capitol Police and died. (“I really don’t know why she decided to do this,” her mother-in-law said.) Rioters included a Texas attorney; a Pennsylvania adjunct instructor and former State House representative; a suburban Chicago tech CEO with an MBA; a Chicago tattoo artist; and a Chicago real estate agent.

“The pandemic has led more normal people to…’find their community,’ on some platform or other,” NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny wrote in her Nieman Lab prediction:

They’ve found the news outlet that tells them what they want to hear, or the YouTube channel that pumps them with fantastical tales of imaginary wars between good and evil, or the Facebook group that reinforces those beliefs and links them with fellow travelers, or the Twitter follows who reliably “own” their perceived enemies.

It turns out maybe people don’t actually care about being lied to. And little is likely to change in 2021 unless and until platforms take actual responsibility for the way people gather and organize on them — admitting that their algorithms already guide what we see, who we speak to, what we buy, and what we believe, and working with outside experts to instead curate an experience that undoes a bit of the pollution that they’ve made.

Some platforms took more forceful action this week than they had previously, though those actions were centered principally around Trump himself rather than on the aspects that Zadrozny mentioned. Trump has been banned from Facebook and Instagram at least through Inauguration Day. “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote Wednesday.

YouTube has restricted Trump’s channel for spreading misinformation about election results. But the president is back on Twitter after a 12-hour lock.

Ironically, Kate Knibbs noted in Wired, the platforms’ efforts to remove misinformation may also hinder the attempts to identify the people who participated in the riots.

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.

Photo of pro-Trump rioters storming the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 by Blink O’fanaye used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 8, 2021, 11 a.m.
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