Sitting at his desk in Toronto, Giancarlo Fiorella watched all the pictures and videos from the Capitol Hill riots pop up on social media. And he started hitting “save.”
“I mean, it’s paramount at this stage because there is way more footage and there are way more images that any one person can go through right now,” says the investigative reporter with Bellingcat. “There’s hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of livestreams and videos of people uploading on Instagram and Facebook and nobody has had the chance to go through every single one of them.”
Fiorella created an open-source folder to allow others to add to the trove of information. What he soon discovered was the riots had hit a nerve, resulting in the largest group of internet sleuths contributing to a Bellingcat project he’d ever seen.
The pictures would prove crucial to arresting key players in the pro-Trump riots. The FBI made more than 20 arrests over the weekend, laying charges related to bringing weapons and bombs to Capitol Hill and illegally entering the building.
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As the riots unfolded, many posted photos and videos bragging about their exploits while unwittingly admitting to crimes.
“Anyone who is on Capitol Hill on that day literally put all of their evidence on a silver plate for law enforcement to use afterwards to identify and bring those involved to justice,” says Carmi Levy of Info-Tech Research Group.
Once the FBI began making arrests, Fiorella says he noticed a desperate rush to scrub the internet of incriminating evidence.
“This is exactly what happened with (the white supremacist rally in) Charlottesville as well,” he says. “Like, play by play the same thing. The perpetrators recorded themselves bragging on video that they were committing crimes, and then with time realize, you know, maybe that wasn’t the best idea because I could face some kind of repercussion and then the material gets pulled down.”
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One tweet from Washington shows the inside of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, specifically her computer and all the information from her email account still open for all to see.
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“So if you see the tweet, (the tweeter) says, “I am inside Nancy Pelosi’s office with thousands of revolutionaries around the building,” says Fiorella. “So that tweet is gone.”
Another Toronto-based researcher worked alongside Bellingcat to identify many of the culprits. John Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab began posting pictures of specific people to allow his followers to dig through the internet in hopes of finding out their identities.
An early success was the identification of former air force lieutenant colonel Larry Brock of Texas. Brock was seen outside Pelosi’s office, as well as in the Senate chamber, wearing paramilitary fatigues and carrying plastic ties.
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Multiple sleuths were able to spot the patches he was wearing, including the insignia of the 706th Fighter Squadron as well as the logo of the Marvel character Punisher, which has been adopted as a symbol for white supremacist groups. Facial recognition and other social media posts were able to then positively identify Brock.
Brock was arrested Sunday night as was another man identified by Scott-Railton, Eric Munchel of Tennessee. Munchel, who attended the riots with his mother, proved to be more difficult to identify because he was more careful to hide his identity. One small patch on his cap proved to be the first piece of the puzzle. The logo from the Black Rifle Coffee Company suggested he was from Tennessee. That led to others identifying the very particular body armour and fatigues he was wearing, and where he may have bought them.
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Scott-Railton forwarded all the information he collected directly to the FBI. Over the weekend he tweeted that he saw a large increase in the number of people following him.
He also said he had become the target of backlash from people who don’t appreciate the work he’s doing. A Twitter account using his name and likeness but with a slightly different username was also created by an unknown user for reasons that remain unclear. Twitter has since suspended that account.
“This isn’t a political revolution, it’s a social media revolution,” says London, Ont.-based Levy. “It’s a technological revolution, it’s a revolution for right-minded citizens who decided that they’re going to use technology for good and they’re going to use it to go after those who committed what is basically a very serious crime.”
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