Archivists Are Preserving Capitol Hill Riot Livestreams Before They’re Deleted

As Trump supporters posted tons of videos and photos to social media from the riots on Capitol Hill, digital archivists got to work saving the images.
January 7, 2021, 4:59pm
A Trump supporter holding a cell phone at the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill.
Image via Getty Images 

In times of need, the archivists always come through. During Wednesday's pro-Trump riot at the US capitol, internet archivists started preserving hundreds of photos and videos spreading on social media of the event, which have become immediately relevant as the FBI and other law enforcement groups are looking to identify people who were there.

As Motherboard pointed out yesterday, many easily-identifiable MAGA personalities streamed their raid on the Capitol. Baked Alaska, for example, took photos and streamed himself in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Many of these streams have been deleted by either the streamer or the social media platforms where they were hosted. 

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Reddit users u/AdamLynch started a thread on the Data Hoarder subreddit on Wednesday to assemble archiving efforts, where they initially stored data in a torrent. 

”Literally from the moment I heard this was happening I knew I needed to start backing it up,” they said. “Especially the livestreams and POV of the people breaking into Capitol. I remember from previous protests and riots just how fast websites will remove content.” Eventually, they plan to contribute the content to the Internet Archive and reaching out to librarians to make it widely accessible.

Open source research and journalist collective Bellingcat put out a call for people to start saving social media content from the protests as they see it: "Just like after Charlottesville in 2017, many of those who are streaming will delete their streams once they realize how incriminating the footage is."

The high demand for the files was taxing their bandwidth, however, so they moved it to a MEGA file.

That database on MEGA contains more than 12.4 gigabytes of photos and videos from multiple social media platforms, included Twitch livestreams like StatusCoup and Touring News. Others in the subreddit created mirrors of the database, so it's not lost.

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IntelligenceX, a European search engine company, also opened a file transfer protocol server for the public to add to a database of footage from social media yesterday.   

Social media platforms can and do remove posts and entire accounts whenever they want, making preservation of historically important content a challenge. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter all removed President Trump's video of him praising rioters and lying about the election results on Wednesday. Facebook said that it is actively searching for and removing content that qualifies as "incitement or encouragement of the events at the Capitol, including videos and photos from the protestors. At this point they represent promotion of criminal activity which violates our policies," according to a company blog post.

“Both platforms and users will remove a gigantic chunk of these materials within a day or two of their upload,” Aric Toler, a researcher at Bellingcat, told Motherboard. “Sometimes, this is no big deal—some random, blurry video may not provide anything useful that isn't in a hundred other livestreams.” But one video might show something with an angle or lighting that all the others don’t, he said. The more raw materials researchers and forensic analysts have, the more they have to work with.

“If you are trying to reconstruct the events of the storming, determine the group dynamics/relationships between the stormers, or trying to identify specific people from the group, you need as many photos and videos as possible to establish these research tasks,” Toler said.

The FBI is requesting video or photo evidence "depicting violence" and tips about the riots through a submissions portal, with a limit of 1024 megabytes and four files max. But the FBI was quite capable of stalking people's social media profiles and using facial recognition or surveillance footage to track down protestors for damaging police property during the protests for Black lives in the summer of 2020. Other groups will surely use this footage to try to identify specific protesters.  

During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, organizers told protesters to be very careful about livestreaming and taking photos that showed people’s faces, because police can and do monitor social media to make arrests. Those protests were heavily monitored by surveillance planes and helicopters, advanced surveillance tools, and cell phone location data-tracking tools. 

By contrast, many MAGA protesters streamed themselves and attempted to go viral on social media as a brand building exercise. People who ransacked the Capitol walked out of the building with federal property, walked back to their hotels, and gathered masklessly as though they’d just been to a fun party. Black Lives Matter organizers noted the difference in police response, and the comfort that the largely white Capitol-stormer protesters enjoyed while interrupting democracy, versus the often militaristic police response last summer against BLM protesters.