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.