Update (1/11): After temporarily being deactivated, the anonymous Instagram user's original account, @homegrownterrorists, has been reactivated.
Hours after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, an anonymous Instagram user started posting images of the rioters inside on an account called "@homegrownterrorists," asking for crowdsourced help in publicly identifying them. By Friday afternoon, @homegrownterrorists had attached names to more than a dozen people caught on camera in the Capitol—and amassed more than 250,000 followers in the process.
The FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police have been actively seeking the public's help in tracking down those who took part in last week's insurrection, and the user behind @homegrownterrorists figured their account could be an invaluable resource, they told VICE. But running it quickly became a burden. They received dozens of death threats from Trump supporters, they said, and worried that one might uncover their identity and come after them. On Thursday night, in a moment of panic, they deleted their account.
They've been trying to regain access to it ever since, they told VICE, with no luck. Instagram allows anyone who deletes their account to reactivate it within approximately 30 days, but for some reason, @homegrownterrorists hasn't been able to do that. They're currently locked out, leaving them unable to sift through "thousands" of unread DMs that might contain the names of additional rioters. (An Instagram representative told VICE that the platform isn't sure why @homegrownterrorists is having trouble reactivating their account, and that Instagram is "taking a look into the issue.")
In the meantime, @homegrownterrorists has moved to a new handle, "@outtheterrorists," where they've continued to post the photos and names of those involved in last week's riot. VICE spoke with the person behind the account—who asked to withhold their name in the interest of protecting their safety—about why they're doing this, the surprisingly high-tech methods they use to confirm rioter's identities, and the toll maintaining this account is taking on them.
Why did you decide to start @homegrownterrorists?
On Monday, when the news was going around about this march on the same day as the certification, I messaged one of my colleagues saying, "Wow, you know what's gonna happen, right?" And it happened. I was just so upset, and I wanted to help [uncover] the identities of all of these people who weren't wearing masks and blatantly breaking the law and trying to bring down our government. I didn't think it would work; I didn't expect this to go so viral, and to blow up into this huge, crazy thing.
After you started the account, how rapidly did you start gaining followers?I tagged the Capitol as a geolocation, I added some hashtags, and those immediately started bringing in some likes and comments and DMs and a few followers. The next morning, there were social influencers like Tyler Oakley, and then Megan McCain, Carole Radziwill—like, celebrity accounts—who began reposting and resharing. And then it just took on a life of its own.
How do you go about identifying the rioters whose photos and names you post on the account?
A lot of them were coming through in the DMs. From there, I would go online and search them to see if I could find any information on them, [or] images to match them. I have software—it's called "Let's Enhance"—where you can take a really pixelated image and blow it up, like, 16 times. It uses artificial intelligence and neural networks to blow it up without losing detail.
How did you go about confirming their identities, and making sure you were certain the names you were attaching to these faces were correct?There were names that came through where I have multiple photos, the name of the person, and I can see that they were there on their social media—in their stories, or that they posted videos or photos actually in [the Capitol]. Or they're photographed, and they have all these profiles from all sorts of angles. [I'm] pulling all that together and laying it over in Photoshop and seeing like, does this all match up?
Why do you think that it's important to identify these people, and to make sure that the public knows who they are and what their names are?
I mean, it was essentially a terrorist attack. Think about the Boston Bombing, or 9/11, or the shooting in Las Vegas. Everyone knew the names of these people. This was just on such a massive scale that it's not possible to keep track of all of those people. And so getting those names out there and making sure that they are held to account for the crimes that they committed [is important].
What kind of consequences do you hope that these people face?
I hope that they are charged and tried for what they did. They call themselves protesters, so I hope that they are held to the standards of actual peaceful protesters who are arrested and treated so horribly under this administration. I want them to pay for what they did.
Have you been getting harassed by Trump supporters?
Yeah. Those actually started first, before anything else. It was, like, non-stop comments on every photo. We would post a photo like, "Do you know who this person is?" And they were commenting things like, "Breonna Taylor"; "George Floyd"; "Anne Frank." And you could tell that they were probably bots, accounts with zero followers. After that, there were a lot of really terrible DMs that came through, which were really rattling.
What were they like?
Like, "I'm going to kill you." A lot of that. That's unsettling. Sleeping last night was not great.
Are you worried that you might get doxxed?
Why is that such a scary prospect?
I mean, they broke into the Capitol building. If they wanted to, I'm sure that they could break into where I live.
Why did you delete your first account, @homegrownterrorists?
I wasn't sure if my IP address or location could be somehow traced from the metadata on the images. I don't know if that's a thing; I just got really paranoid. And I really wanted to just, like, go to sleep. I just got really, really anxious, and I put it on private, and then locked it down and archived everything.
You're at a place now where you're ramping back up, and starting to identify rioters on your new account. How long do you see yourself continuing to do this?
I don't know. I don't really want to run this forever, but there's this massive platform now. So how can that be used for good in the long term—I don't know. But I want to maybe explore that, too.
Have you told any of your close friends that you're doing this?
Does anyone know that you're doing this?
That has to be a difficult secret to keep.
It's not fun.
It seems like running this account is, in a lot of ways, pretty terrible. It's stressful. You're on your own. You're afraid for your safety. What's keeping you from shutting it down and walking away?
I feel obligated to the country just to get this behind us, to do something to help facilitate that. But it is so icky. I've had a migraine for two days now just from staring at this and thinking about it so much. Ultimately, I don't want to do this for months on end.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.