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The Race to Preserve the DC Mob’s Digital Traces

There is recent historical precedent that makes the importance of archiving this footage obvious. Back in 2017, Toler conducted a similar effort to catalog videos from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. By his estimation, users deleted nearly half of the clips within a few days of the event. “I archived almost all of them,” Toler says, “but if I hadn’t, they’d just be gone, forever. I used a lot of these videos later to help identify some of the more violent types.” This included Daniel Borden, one of the men who would later be sent to prison for the beating of a Black man in a parking garage during the white supremacist rally.

The FBI is already calling for tips and footage to help them identify the people who went inside the Capitol building. “Law enforcement can look if they want—the same as anyone else—but we aren’t going out of our way to share it with any law enforcement body,” Toler says. “We’re just collecting footage that is already open source and out there into one place.”

There are now a number of different repositories for this footage, and Bellingcat isn’t the only group working on an archive. On Reddit, a group called DataHoarders began a similar effort, while a collective known as Woke is focused on archiving streaming footage, airing it on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, and keeping it for the historical record.

In the past, some citizen journalism efforts focused on open source sleuthing have made high-profile mistakes; for instance, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, online amateur sleuths incorrectly identified suspects, creating additional chaos. But the current crop of citizen journalists collating footage have more straightforward goals—they aim to act as archivists, not detectives.

Woke, for example, was founded during the Black Lives Matter protests this summer with the intention of both providing access to live feeds and archiving the actions. In the past six months, they’ve archived an estimated 30,000 streams from protests across the country. “The platforms are pretty notorious for pulling them down,” says Ryan Carmichael, a streamer who runs Woke’s Twitch channel, which had a half a million viewers yesterday.

During Wednesday’s riot, Woke pulled a variety of streams, from mainstream news organizations to right-wing figures on the ground, and broadcast them simultaneously, creating a collage of different perspectives on the event. “This is a new thing for the historic record, the fact that people are willingly making public video feeds from the front lines,” says Max Goodhart, another member of the Woke collective. “We see ourselves as curators.”

These curatorial efforts face a major obstacle: the social networks where they find their footage. Tech giants are under enormous pressure right now when it comes to how to handle right-wing extremists and President Trump, who used Twitter and Facebook to encourage the mob. They have taken unprecedented steps to moderate the president’s posts, and their quick action in removing riot footage speaks to how eager they are to appear proactive. But while enforcing their rules on the president may help prevent him from egging on his followers further, the rush to delete videos posted by those very followers may end up making them harder to hold accountable. Meanwhile, citizen journalists are stuck facing the same repercussions as the mobs they’re trying to document. Woke, for example, says its YouTube channel received a strike for posting footage of yesterday’s event, preventing it from uploading new clips for a week.

It’s these kinds of good-faith efforts to quell violence that may end up doing more harm than good. “The idea that it is dangerous for people to see footage of this event that we’re seeing around the world is far-fetched to me,” says Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology. “Taking down footage of what happened yesterday seems, to me, like an unjustifiable capitulation.” With many major figures on the right already attempting to reframe yesterday’s events as an attack from leftists in disguise, it could also erase valuable documentation of who was actually there—something that many people will need to see.

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