Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Amanda Marcotte

How online sleuths caught Jan. 6 rioters

Online sleuthing has a bad reputation, and for good reason. Most communities of amateurs that set out to solve crimes in online forums only end up making things worse. They accuse innocent people. They interfere with law enforcement. They spread conspiracy theories. In some cases, the impulse can morph into a disinformation cult. What is QAnon, after all, if not a bunch of wannabe Sherlocks who think they're discovering hidden truths?

But there's one big, amazing exception to the rule — the group of self-appointed investigators who joined a grassroots online effort to uncover the identities of people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. As NBC reporter Ryan Reilly explains in his new book, "Sedition Hunters: How January 6th Broke the Justice System," a group of citizen-analysts started to comb through the enormous archive of photographic and video evidence of the Jan. 6 insurrection for clues. Using programming and social media skills, they became ruthlessly effective at identifying specific rioters in the crowd. In the process, they became an invaluable resource for the FBI. As Reilly notes, "Frankly, there are a lot of people who are behind bars today who would not be there but for these sleuths."

Reilly spoke to Salon about his book and his two-plus years of reporting on the fallout from Jan. 6. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

This book is about the "Sedition Hunters," as you call them: an online group of self-appointed detectives who set out to find the identities of the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and turn them into the FBI. When you were interviewing these people, what did you find motivated them? Why were they drawn to this time-consuming work?

It's a mixture of two major themes. One is that it's a lot of people who like to solve puzzles. It's people who are into this idea of solving mysteries. This was an ongoing cycle of mysteries that seems to be never-ending. It really gets the adrenaline moving, to actually figure out who these individuals are.

But obviously another big part of it is anger. A lot of people were very mad about what happened on Jan. 6. A lot of people are frustrated that the FBI, federal law enforcement and the Capitol Police didn't do more to prevent this from happening, given all the warning signs that we saw online.

The sleuths had varying connections to the Capitol. There's everyone from someone whose husband worked as an officer in the buildin, to someone who only had been there for an eighth grade trip to people who had never been there in their lives but just felt victimized by an attack on the country and on the transition of power.

I remember when people started to sleuth online. My initial reaction was skeptical: You see a lot of people go down internet rabbit holes, and they often come up with nothing. But these folks have been remarkably successful.

Your skepticism, initially, was warranted. We've seen situations like the Boston Marathon bombing, where you had these vigilante groups of online sleuths really interfere with investigations and make innocent people's lives miserable because of it. But this is a unique circumstance. First, things had advanced since the Boston Marathon bombing, in terms of the open-source resources available and also in the protections that have been put in place. What you haven't seen, really, is folks just throwing names randomly out there. That might have happened, in certain circumstances, in the very early days.

But the leaders emphasized from the very beginning that we don't just put things out on social media. We send them in to the Bureau. The online sleuths have this internal vetting process. It's almost like a peer review process, before these things are eventually turned over to the FBI. They want to make sure they're dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's, to make sure these are the correct identifications. Because of the amount of information they're able to get, open-source online information, they really are able to lock down these identifications beyond any reasonable doubt. 

Now we're getting to a different point, where a lot of this is about putting pressure on the Bureau because they have cases that haven't been brought forward thus far. It's not because there's any mystery as to who these people are. I vetted a number of these identities myself, and they're just rock solid. You could write an affidavit tomorrow laying out the details of, say, more than 100 people who are photographed on the FBI's "Capitol violence" page right now, because the sleuths have done an extremely thorough job of making sure that the individuals they're identifying are the people they're looking for.

As you mentioned, there was a lot of outrage over the FBI's handling of this, at least initially. Much of your book is focused on law enforcement failures before, during and after the riot. They failed to take the intelligence seriously enough, or to act on it. They weren't really prepared when things happened. All these rioters left the Capitol without getting arrested. There was a real fear that nobody would pay a legal penalty for doing this. Why didn't the FBI do more to prevent this, even though a lot of people saw it coming a mile away?

The reason that a lot of the book focuses on that is because I really feel like it hasn't gotten enough attention. It's still this open question, what's going to be done about it. The Jan. 6 committee did a very good job of focusing everyone's attention on Trump's actions. But Liz Cheney, along with House Democrats, decided to focus on Trump and not on criticism of law enforcement. They worried it would make the narrative too complicated for Americans to digest. I'd like to think that we're capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Two things can be true at once, because this was a monumental failure. And it really hasn't been resolved. 

We're in a circumstance now where you have one party repeating garbage from the internet, conspiracy theories about Jan. 6, and you have another party basically defending the FBI. The truth is that there need to be some changes implemented. They need to get to the bottom of what of what really happened. There's just this huge disconnect right now between the FBI that we see portrayed in Hollywood and the actual capabilities of the FBI. They're a few steps behind where they should be in the 21st century, especially when so much of their job right now has to be all about being internet experts and open-source masters. That's just not where the Bureau is at this point.

That's for a variety of reasons. You can make a lot more money in the private sector when it comes to tech, rather than going into government. There's going to have to be some structural changes to make sure that people just don't do a few years at the Bureau and then hop out afterward for a much higher-paying job in the private sector. We really do need those those skilled employees at the Bureau, given the challenges that America is facing in the 21st century.

The sedition hunters went after the people who were there on Jan. 6, the actual rioters. They had their photographs. They had all this social media information. That was accessible to any Joe Blow with a computer. Now there's been a discussion about the next level. Trump has obviously has been indicted for his role in this. But just the other day, Liz Cheney accused Jim Jordan of being involved. How do the sedition hunters feel about the people who weren't at the Capitol that day, but may have been involved in what happened?

That's something that you really have to leave up to the Bureau, because it's information that only they can really get at. The sleuths aren't able to write up subpoenas. They can't interview witnesses. They've applied their skills to what they can do, and they feel like they are playing this important role in upholding democracy. What they've been able to do, really, is remarkable, especially in terms of just uncovering faces. You have to put together a map of what these individuals were up to everywhere they were at the Capitol that day. It's a lot of work but it can also be really rewarding, to get that adrenaline rush or that dopamine hit, when they find someone. They can bring about justice for a police officer who was assaulted that day.

That's been really rewarding for a lot of them, to recognize the role that they played, even if they're not publicly recognized. Frankly, there are a lot of people who are behind bars today who would not be there but these sleuths.

Prevention is incredibly important. Right now, a lot of people act like Jan. 6 was the worst it could get, but it could be much worse. This could happen again. Something much worse than this could happen. But it hasn't, in no small part, because so many people went to prison for this. 

I definitely think that it has a deterrent effect. But sadly, there are millions of Americans who are lost in conspiracy theories and who aren't gonna be pulled back from the brink. People who will never be convinced that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. because they've been told by people that they, for some reason, respect that the election was stolen. No matter what you tell them or how many facts you introduce or how much reality you shove in their face.

A number of these defendants insist, until the very end, that the election was stolen and therefore what they did on Jan. 6 was justified. When you have millions of people who believe a crazy conspiracy theory like that, all you can do is make sure that they know there are going to be consequences for their actions. That's what the sleuths think their role is in this. Even if there are all these people who believe something that's fundamentally untrue, there will be consequences for them if they take any illegal actions.

People have a First Amendment right to believe any sort of crazy conspiracy that they want to. But that leaves us in a situation where we're vulnerable to these sort of attacks, because you have so many people who can easily justify violent reactions to disinformation. The sleuths can help be this wall in preventing violence in the future.  

I want to ask one question about the rioters and their psychology, because you've been covering this from the beginning. We've become a little inured to it, but one of the most shocking things about the Capitol riot was how many people filmed themselves and photographed themselves. They put it up all over social media and bragged about it. Some knew to cover their faces, but most did not. Even the Proud Boys mostly did not. Why weren't they more worried about going to prison?

One of the jokes the sleuths make: All these people got arrested because they were trying to "own the libs" by not wearing a mask in a place that had a mask mandate. What more could you ask for, if you're committing criminal activity? There's a citywide mandate to cover your face! Yet a lot of people refused to do so.

It's both funny and scary, how willing people were to put their images out there. It's because they thought they could win and that they had the moral high ground. They thought they would be seen as the victors in this endeavor. That's what makes this really scary. They were so sucked into these conspiracy theories and were so firm in their beliefs, in spite of all the evidence. They thought they were going to come out on top and would go down as heroes. I think that's what is particularly disturbing about this. There's a lot of comedy mixed in with a lot of tragedy on Jan. 6. I tried my best to strike that balance in the book.

Back to the sleuths, the heroes of this book. How did it feel to spend so much time with people who were doing this work?

There are now people who have met some of their best friends in life through this process. These people are receiving public praise. Even the attorney general made reference to the "citizen sleuths" at one point. They haven't gone fully unrecognized. They are well aware of the important role, in many cases, that they've played in these investigations. A lot of the law enforcement people I talked to also made that clear to me. These investigations are embarrassing for the Justice Department and the FBI. Random people from the internet are really pushing this thing forward and helping overcome some bureaucratic hurdles within the federal government.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.