NEW YORK – One of the defining images of the Capitol Hill siege was of a man dangling from the balcony of the Senate chamber. Clad in black and with a helmet over his head, he might have been hard to identify even after he paused to sit in a leather chair at the top of the Senate dais and hold up a fist.
But Josiah Colt made it easy. He posted a video to his Facebook page moments later, bragging about being the first to reach the chamber floor and sit in Nancy's Pelosi's chair (he was wrong). He used a slur to describe Pelosi and called her “a traitor.”
A little later the 34-year-old from Boise, Idaho, posted again. This time, he sounded more anxious. “I don't know what to do,” Colt said in a video he'd soon delete but not before it was cached online. “I'm in downtown D.C. I'm all over the news now.”
Many in the mob that ransacked the Capitol did so while livestreaming, posting on Facebook and taking selfies, turning the United States Capitol into a theater of real-time – and often strikingly ugly and violent – far-right propaganda.
“This extremist loop feeds itself. The folks who are watching and commenting and encouraging and sometimes giving some cash are supporting the individual on the ground. And he's supporting their fantasies,” says Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
Taken together, the various fragmented feeds from Wednesday's incursion form a tableau of an ill-conceived insurrection – as full of “I was here” posturing for social media as of ideological revolution.
The white nationalist Tim Gionet, known online as “Baked Alaska” and a noted participant in the “Unite the Right” rally at Charlottesville, streamed live from congressional offices, gleefully documenting the break-in for more than 15,000 viewers on the streaming platform Dlive. The service, ostensibly for gamers, has grown into a tool for white nationalists because of its lack of content modulation.
The rioters' self-documentation was the on-the-ground culmination of an online alternative reality fueled by QAnon conspiracies, false claims of fraud in the election and Trump's own rhetoric.
“In their minds they had impunity. I'm having trouble understanding how these people could believe that,” says Larry Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.
“They're going to be prosecuted,” he says of those involved, and “they have provided the evidence.”
Federal law enforcement officials have pledged an exhaustive investigation into the rampage that left five people dead, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick. They are relying in part on the social media trail many left behind. “The goal here is to identify people and get them,” Ken Kohl, the top deputy federal prosecutor in Washington, told reporters Friday.
Among those arrested so far are Richard Barnett, photographed sitting in Pelosi's office with his feet on her desk, and Derrick Evans, a newly elected Republican from West Virginia, who posted video on social media of himself clamoring at the Capitol door. “We're in! Keep it moving, baby!”
The chair Josiah Colt sat in was actually in the Senate chamber, reserved for Vice President Mike Pence. Colt issued an apology begging forgiveness for his role. “In the moment I thought I was doing the right thing,” he said.
Social network Parler dropped
The conservative-friendly social network Parler was booted off the internet Monday over ties to last week's siege on the U.S. Capitol, but not before digital activists made off with an archive of its posts, including any that might have helped organize or document the riot.
The two-year-old magnet for the far right became the No. 1 free app on iPhones late last week after Facebook, Twitter and other mainstream social media platforms silenced President Donald Trump's accounts over comments that seemed to incite Wednesday's violent insurrection.
But Google yanked Parler's smartphone app from its app store Friday for allowing postings that seek “to incite ongoing violence in the U.S.” Apple followed suit Saturday after giving Parler a day to address complaints it was being used to “plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities.”
The death knell came from Amazon Web Services, the leading provider of cloud computing infrastructure, which informed Parler it would need to look for a new web-hosting service after Sunday. Parler promptly sued, telling a federal judge that the tech giant had breached its contract and abused its market power.