There are a lot of ways in which the omnipresence of recording devices has reshaped our culture. The emergence of police brutality as a political issue derives largely from the ability of bystanders to capture footage showing the frequency with which Black Americans were abused by law enforcement. The emphasis on social media attention has turned millions of Americans into micro-celebrities and celebrity-wannabes, documenting their own lives for the rush of receiving the approval of others.
For most people, though, taking a selfie and sharing it on Instagram still seems private and innocuous. They don’t have many followers, so it seems like the functional equivalent of passing a photo around at work. It’s anonymous, in its own way, even though anyone in the world can see it. That’s a tricky combination: posting footage that can be seen anywhere with the expectation that it won’t be. It becomes particularly fraught when that footage is documenting criminal activity at a historic scale.
Some portion of the crowd at the Capitol on Wednesday was probably unaware of that scale.
“The people I managed to speak to didn’t seem to understand the gravity of what they had done,” wrote Slate’s Aymann Ismail, who was on the scene. There was apparently a glee to the rampage, a mix for many of surprise and excitement that blurred any sense that perhaps climbing through broken windows into a heavily protected federal building might be crossing some sort of line.
Others were certainly aware of what they were doing. While some of those on Capitol Hill were like the picnickers who headed to Manassas to watch the first Battle of Bull Run, others were there to emulate the Confederates. There was a real threat alongside the organically emerging one.
And all of it was captured in photos, videos and streams that quickly made their way to the Internet.
The world is now in its fourth information revolution. The first preceded the written word. The second preceded the emergence of the Internet. The third: the ability to share information through the Web. And this current revolution, in which there’s too much to parse, when we record and document ourselves so much that we can’t actually capture it all. We record things and those things get lost because they aren’t worth keeping, not because we can’t.
That poses a problem in the moment. Think of it like a curve: an enormous amount of documentation of what happened at the Capitol existed at the moment it was happening. Much of that quickly made its way online. As hours pass, more and more of it will vanish, in part because the people documenting what they saw will begin to realize that it might not be useful to have publicly recorded themselves violating federal law. That Instagram post that got 20 likes from 100 followers is suddenly something the FBI might find useful. It’s also something that employers might not appreciate. Facebook itself announced it would begin removing videos and photos from Wednesday out of concern that they promote criminal activity.
Once that video or photo is removed, so is the piece of history that is documented. So, amateur archivists have already sprung into action to capture and store the scenes that unfolded during the Capitol takeover.
One group collecting those records is Bellingcat. The group of independent investigators already has a robust track record of using publicly available evidence to piece together historic events. They were instrumental in uncovering Russia’s role in shooting down Malaysian Air Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014 and, last year, helped determine that Iranian antiaircraft fire brought down a plane in that country. Shortly after the Capitol was secured on Wednesday, Bellingcat announced that it was asking volunteers to contribute videos and photos documenting what had occurred.
As the tweet indicates, the group did something similar after the violence in Charlottesville in 2017. The Washington Post spoke by phone with Aric Toler, a Bellingcat investigator, to better understand why collecting this information was so useful.
He noted the clear echoes of Charlottesville.
“You have some of the exact same people who were literally there” at both events, Toler said, “and not just types of people. There’s the same sort of element: These people being very, very, very online and fame-hungry.” World Star for right-wing politics, if you will.
Then, the habit of documenting what was happening had different implications since it wasn’t the case that the majority of participants were breaking the law. But, Toler said, the preservation of what was captured is nonetheless important simply because it made possible the use of the material in the future, including to better understand what had happened and why.
So far, Bellingcat’s effort has yielded several hundred videos, not all of which have been catalogued. There are other similar efforts, including one by the Reddit group r/DataHoarder that has vacuumed up several gigabytes of data.
The involvement of Reddit serves as a reminder of the risks posed by amateur sleuthing. In April 2013, Reddit users used public photos of suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings to falsely accuse individuals of involvement.
“You try to preserve it either for future investigators and historians,” Toler said, but when people use it to try to identify individuals, “it gets kind of complex because you have all the cases of people who get misidentified.” (There has already been one such occurrence related to Wednesday’s violence.)
“At the very least what we’re trying to do here is provide preservation,” he added — which would then allow for future analysis, which is otherwise impossible.
The group offers rough guidelines for capturing material, something that Toler speculated was appealing because so many otherwise felt powerless about what had occurred in Washington.
“Theoretically, this one video — you may be the only one who found this video with 29 views which shows a clear view of somebody committing assault or something like that,” Toler said. “You feel powerless watching this on TV and all these guys just running around the Capitol. This is something very, very small but it’s something that you can do.”
History is constructed out of what survives the now. So is justice. In an era where everything is documented and that documentation can quickly evaporate, Bellingcat and others are working to ensure that the record is maintained.