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Rioters thought it was cool to take selfies at the Capitol. Then, the FBI came calling for them

So far, social media evidence has reportedly played a role in about 75 percent of cases connected to the January 6 insurrection.

Rioters thought it was cool to take selfies at the Capitol. Then, the FBI came calling for them
Cover Image Source: Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection on January 6 last year, the FBI received over 200,000 tips about rioters who took part in the unprecedented attempt to stop the democratic transfer of power. Everyone from close family members to complete strangers contacted the agency with information about those involved and among those were details about the social media posts of an Ohio man named Walter Messer bragging about him being present at the riot. According to Vox, to verify the tips received against Messer, the FBI turned to three large companies who together, knew pretty much everything about him: AT&T, Facebook and Google.


While AT&T gave the FBI Messer's telephone number and a list of cell sites he used—including one that covered the US Capitol building at the time of the insurrection—Facebook told the agency that the phone number was linked to Messer's Facebook account, where he posted several selfies from inside the Capitol during the insurrection. Additionally, from Google, the FBI got precise location data showing Messer’s journey from Ohio to DC and back in the days immediately before and after the riot. The tech company also provided his location on the afternoon of January 6 as he wandered around and ultimately inside the Capitol building. Aside from these, the criminal complaint against Messer lists videos of the riot posted on his YouTube channel, his YouTube and internet searches and emails from his Gmail account.


As we cross the one-year mark of the insurrection, a good number of the cases related to the incident stand upon the vast stores of data obtained from companies like Facebook and Google. "I don't think we can conclusively say that the social media evidence was the only thing that got them caught, but an element of social media evidence was involved," said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism. According to Lewis, social media evidence has played a role in about 75 percent of cases so far.


Loosely organized groups of online amateur sleuths, such as the "Sedition Hunters," have also been able to identify a fair number of suspects. "In some ways, they kicked the FBI's butt in the early days in terms of using these investigative techniques and open source intelligence to figure out who a lot of these individuals were," said Ryan Reilly, senior justice reporter at HuffPost, who has been tracking the Sedition Hunters' efforts for an upcoming book. One example of the Sedition Hunters doing a better job of identifying a suspect than the FBI is that of Maryann Mooney-Rondon and her son Rafael Rondon. While the FBI falsely identified an Alaska woman as a person who helped steal a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, online sleuths correctly identified Mooney-Rondon as the suspect using Facebook and publicly available facial recognition tools.


While data-hungry tech companies have definitely made the FBI’s job easier, their involvement in the January 6 investigations paints a picture of just how extensively they track us. "Social media has become a place where investigators, more and more often, are getting formally trained to look for evidence... on a regular basis," said Adam Wandt, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and cybercrime investigations expert. Although many rioters basically offered themselves up to authorities by posting plenty of evidence on various platforms, tracking that goes on underneath the surface has also been used in the Capitol insurrection investigation.


The FBI itself admits to using commercial facial recognition technology systems—of the likes of Vigilant Solutions and Clearview AI—that scrape the internet for photos. Another tool that has drawn concern among privacy and civil rights groups is geofence warrants aka reverse search warrants. These orders require companies to provide all the accounts that were in a certain area at a certain time. The downside of this is that the devices of perfectly innocent people will also come under scrutiny.

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