As she approached the U.S. Capitol doors, Jenna Ryan lined up her face in the frame of a Facebook Live video. “Y’all know who to hire for your Realtor. Jenna Ryan for your Realtor,” she said to the camera.
University of Kentucky student Gracyn Courtright posted a photo of herself on Instagram from outside the Capitol doors, arms lifted in celebration. “Can’t wait to tell my grandkids I was here!” the caption read.
In posts on Instagram and Facebook, Edward “Jake” Lang shared his confrontation with police officers at the Capitol. Using a finger-pointing emoji toward the front of the crowd, Lang wrote, “This is me.”
All three publicly documented their roles in the mob attack Jan. 6 on the U.S. Capitol that left five dead and sent lawmakers fleeing for safety, and all three saw that documentation used against them in charges filed by the Department of Justice.
Of the 119 people facing federal charges in connection to the riot, at least 71 cases involve photos, posts or footage from social media. At least 47 people saw screenshots of their own selfies, livestreams, videos or posts in their charges, according to a USA TODAY analysis of the federal charging documents.
While it’s not unheard of for criminals to brag about their crimes on social media, what is unique about this particular incident is the treasure trove of information that was released by the subjects themselves in the form of both video, pictures and conversations on different social media platforms,” said Adam Scott Wandt, assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
USA TODAY tried to contact Ryan, Courtright, Lang and other defendants, as well as their attorneys. They either could not be reached or did not return messages.
There are several reasons why people would post potentially incriminating videos and selfies from the Capitol, said experts in the fields of media psychology, sociology and social media studies.
Sharing those moments publicly can elicit a sense of belonging to a group or the feeling of being a part of history.
“It’s become part of our daily lives,” said Makana Chock, an associate professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.
“We are really heavily influenced by social norms, perceptions of what others that we care about are doing and what they would expect or approve of us doing. And there’s a social norm or expectation that we post photos of ourselves and others at events.”
“Pics or it didn’t happen,” she said. When people are part of a social group, Chock said, they tend to assume that others share their attitudes. As they isolate from others on social media, the lack of dissent adds to that assurance.
“You say something and no one disagrees, and you assume more people must actually agree with this,” Chock said. “It sort of builds.”
Many posters who have been charged claimed that because they simply followed others into the Capitol after the doors had been broken down, they weren’t breaking the law.
Courtright, who has been accused of entering the Capitol unlawfully and theft of government property, among other charges, defended her actions on Twitter saying, “The police officers walked around with us.”
“Everybody’s doing it, it must be okay,” Chock said.
“Hello Nice FBI Lady”
Police had made relatively few arrests the day of the riot, which was sparked by a throng of President Donald Trump’s supporters fed false accusations that Joe Biden had stolen the election. They had gathered that day at the Ellipse to hear speakers, including Trump, who urged the crowd to fight back. Participants marched to the Capitol, where they clashed with police and breached the building.
Once inside, they interrupted the Electoral College vote. Lawmakers, fearing for their lives, evacuated their chambers and hid in the vast maze of the building. After several hours, most of the rioters left – returning to hotels, boarding flights, going home.
In the weeks since, the FBI has pored through thousands of tips, photos, videos and other publicly available information to identify those responsible.
Many of those bread crumbs were left by the participants themselves, such as Kevin Lyons of Illinois.
After the FBI confronted Lyons with an Instagram photo he’d briefly posted featuring the sign outside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, Lyons showed detectives that the same photo remained on his mobile phone, according to his arrest affidavit.
He offered to upload a video he shot inside the Capitol to YouTube and send the link to investigators, the affidavit said. His email read,
“Hello Nice FBI Lady, Here are the links to the videos. Looks like Podium Guy is in one of them, less the podium. Let me know if you need anything else. Kevin Lyons.”
He’s been charged with three offenses related to entering the Capitol illegally.
“If you’re going to do something and you want to show it off, you’d better have pictures of it, or no one is going to believe you,” Wandt said. “That’s kind of the society that we live in today.”
Selfies are a way for people to present themselves as members of a group, Chock said. People at the Capitol wanted to prove their membership in the “Stop the Steal” movement or whatever ideology brought them there.
Social media offers neurochemical rewards, she said. It feels good.
“So likes, views and shares feel like a social reward. And selfies are more likely to elicit these types of responses,” Chock said. The more positive response people got while posting at the Capitol, the more they may have felt they were doing the right thing.
Some may have been seeking to oneup others posting similar content. Plenty of people can post about falsehoods that Trump won the election or share his discredited claims of voter fraud. Rioters’ posts set them apart in their location and actions.
“The cultural space is crowded,” said Christopher Schneider, professor of sociology at Brandon University in Canada.
“If I want to talk about QAnon and conspiracy theories, what’s going to make my video or my talk or my image go viral?” he said. “When I can livestream me sitting in Nancy Pelosi’s chair or at her desk and put my feet up there and people can take pictures … I am internet famous now, and I think there’s an appeal there for people to be doing that.”
Many of those charged were turned in by people they know. That may have come as a bit of a shock, Chock said, because there’s an illusion of privacy in social networks.
“These people are all my friends, they’re part of my social network. They’re my group even though you’ve never met them face-to-face and don’t know who they are,” she said.
Caught up in the moment, the participants in the riot may not have rationally foreseen the consequences of their actions as they posted, said Mathieu Deflem, professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina.
“They justify what they did as not criminal violence, but on the contrary, as patriotism,” he said. “Others will dissociate by taking distance from the violent mob and see themselves as part of those protesters and Trump supporters who were at the rally but not part of the Capitol attack. In both cases, it’s a matter of dissociation and taking distance from the notion that the Capitol was attacked by a violent mob, even though objectively that is surely what some did.”
Many of the posts that helped the FBI snare people referenced the storming of the Capitol as a historic event to be documented for posterity. In their charging documents, several people cast their actions at the Capitol as part of history, something that can further explain why they recorded them.
Lang wrote on Facebook, “I was the leader of Liberty today. Arrest me. You are on the wrong side of history.”
In a Facebook live video after the riot, Jenny Cudd said, “I was here today on Jan. 6th when the new revolution started at the Capitol.”
Several other posts from those arrested include references to 1776, the year the United States declared independence from Britain.
“I’ve looked at a lot of these posts, and a lot of them are, ‘We’re the revolutionaries! We’re going to stop Congress from voting in Joe Biden, and here’s a picture of me doing it!’ Wandt said.
‘Not like I did anything illegal’
Federal prosecutors charged Adam Johnson of Parrish, Florida, after he was captured carrying the Speaker of the House podium in a viral Getty Images photograph. After Johnson was released, his attorney addressed the problem the photo poses.
“I don’t know how else to explain that. But, yeah, that would be a problem. I’m not a magician,” Orlando attorney Dan Eckhart told Tampa Bay TV station WTSP.
We’ve got a photograph of our client with what appears to be inside the federal building, or inside the Capitol, with government property.
Like that photo of Johnson, social media posts will help federal prosecutors build their cases, experts said. They provide documentation of someone’s actions, thoughts and motivations.
“When you put it on social media, it’s in your own words written at the time you did it,” Wandt said. “So it gives us this contemporaneous writing which usually is very damaging to the person.”
The images, videos and posts alone would not be enough, experts said.
Prosecutors are likely to subpoena records from Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies to examine when and from what device posts were made, Wandt said. As they have already in some of the cases, they will seek evidence showing people traveled to Washington.
Building a case will take time. The FBI said agents are reviewing more than 100,000 pieces of digital evidence and seeking tips on others yet to be identified.
Schneider pointed to the riots in Vancouver after the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals loss, including a social media post from a man who claimed to have punched a police officer in the head and burned police cars. It ignited a massive response online, but an 18-month investigation by the Vancouver police found he hadn’t done the things he bragged about.
“Does the evidence from the Capitol rioters look damning? Of course it does,” said Schneider, author of “Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media.” “But the authorities need to make sure that due process is recognized, that these puzzle pieces, as it were, are used to bring people in for questioning and then with other evidence determine whether or not they should be brought to justice and be charged for the crimes.
“Just an image with somebody in a rotunda is not going to be enough, but that’s online now, and people are angry as hell about it.”
In many instances, those images are no longer online. In more than a dozen cases, court records indicate the people arrested deleted accounts or posts.
Wandt said that won’t stop investigators from getting those records through a subpoena. In fact, it makes it harder to defend against the government’s charges.
“This is very good for government because we have case law here in the United States that if you do something criminally culpable and you put it on social media and you later delete that post, then the deletion of that post could be used as prima facie evidence to the jury that you knew your behavior was wrong,” he said. “So the deleting of a post actually makes it worse for somebody.”