The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Capitol rioters generated the evidence that will be used against them

A mob of Trump supporters storms the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Kevin Lyons was arrested Wednesday in Chicago, one of scores of individuals apprehended after having allegedly stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Lyons’s arrest was not exactly a masterpiece of detective work. According to the Justice Department, Lyons posted on Instagram a map of the route from his home in Illinois to D.C., a photo of the exterior of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and provided FBI agents with videos he’d recorded within the Capitol building. Lyons, nonetheless, marveled at the ability of federal agents to scoop up the information that showed his presence in the building, expressing his surprise they’d found the photo of Pelosi’s office because it “was up for only an hour.”

If it’s any consolation to Lyons, others probably have similarly learned about the FBI’s facility with gathering digital evidence that’s posted on the Internet. Two Virginia police officers also were arrested Wednesday after one posted a selfie of the two of them posing inside the Capitol. The enormous volume of photos and videos capturing the events at the Capitol made it fairly easy for investigators either to identify alleged participants or to generate numerous wanted posters highlighting various people believed to have been involved in the riot.

One of the software tools used by some of those who participated in the riot was Parler, a social media site that was taken offline after Amazon, which had been providing infrastructure for the network, cut Parler off for failing to moderate its content. Before that happened, though, a programmer identified as donk_enby managed to pull down and archive most of the site’s content — including videos and photos taken in and around the Capitol on Jan. 6.

After making that data public, an informal collection of researchers has pored over it, organizing it by location and date and sharing videos from the scene. The result is videos like this one, uploaded by Bellingcat.

That is a video of a guy talking about having gone inside the Capitol, holding a shield he clearly obtained from the Capitol Police. He uploaded the video to Parler himself, apparently, ending the clip with the tagline “thanks for watching” — a common sign-off for live-streamers. He recorded a video, in other words, admitting to a crime and shared it online for the entertainment of other people.

Like, say, FBI agents.

Using the Parler data (as helpfully collated by Tommy Carstensen), you can see how Jan. 6 unfolded. President Trump gave a speech at the Ellipse south of the White House about noon. As he spoke, people began heading to the Capitol. By 2 p.m., it was being overrun. On the interactive below, you can see that movement — and how the number of posts from the area around the Capitol slowed down as it was brought back under control. (You can manually move the slider to see particular times; videos have been grouped into five-minute increments.)


By default, the interactive shows every video collected from Parler in the vicinity that day. It is hundreds of videos, recorded and shared by people on the ground. Not all of the videos document people storming the Capitol, of course, but a number of them do. (Here’s a YouTube playlist of some.) Among the videos is one showing law enforcement officers trying to seal off part of the Capitol but failing to do so before the mob gains entry. Had that video not been uploaded to Parler, that episode may not have been seen.

As The Washington Post reported last week, the infrastructure of the Capitol itself will make it much easier to identify participants in the riot. It’s a large stone building, constructed well before things like wireless phone signals were something to consider. So it has its own cellular infrastructure, recording pings from nearby phones as they automatically seek to maintain connectivity.

It’s certainly possible that some of those inside the Capitol that day weren’t aware that they were violating the law. But there were any number of rioters who would have been hard-pressed not to know that, given that they were climbing through broken windows or, in some cases, breaking windows to get inside. And they were surrounded by people filming what was going on and uploading what they saw to social media.

There’s a famous scene from the HBO drama “The Wire” in which a group of people are discussing planned criminal activity. One, sitting at the edge of the room, is documenting the discussion in a notebook. One of the leaders of the group, named Stringer Bell, comes over.

“Are you taking notes on a criminal conspiracy?” he asks incredulously. (We’ve cleaned up the language quite a bit.) He grabs the notebook and rips out the top page.

Luckily for Bell, the guy hadn’t already uploaded a photo of his notes to Instagram.