Online detectives track down attackers on the U.S. Capitol

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Washington (AFP) – The FBI is still looking for people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

Kay too.

The 34-year-old from Washington state is one of many online detectives tracking down participants in the attack on Congress.

“We are somewhere between journalists and law enforcement,” said Kay, who declined to use her last name for security reasons. “We are determined to find everyone. “

More than 725 people have been arrested so far in the attack on the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump who sought to block congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.

“January 6 broke my heart and I never really got over it,” Kay told AFP, her voice broken with emotion. “It seemed, like, a sacrilege.

“For me, the Capitol is – even though I have never been there – a symbol of our democracy,” she said. “And it really matters to me that we have a healthy and prosperous democracy.

“To see the Capitol being assaulted like that, and the people inside, was terrifying, just heartbreaking.”

Kay spent months in front of his computer keyboard, researching the Internet for those involved in the assault on Congress.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a speech on Wednesday, thanked members of the public for their help in bringing the participants to justice.

“We have received over 300,000 tips from ordinary citizens, who have been our indispensable partners in this effort,” Garland said.

Clash between police and Trump supporters on January 6, 2021 ROBERTO SCHMIDT AFP / File

Kay, who has a background in video production, sifted through the thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of video of the attack available online, much of it on social media.

“I found people proudly posting what they did on January 6,” she said. “They were proud to be there, and it just made perfect sense to brag about it online.

“So you find their social media networks, you know their username, and you find them on whatever platform they’re on. “

“Very satisfaying”

Kay is one of several online sleuths working with groups with names like Sedition Hunters, Capitol Hunters, and Deep State Dogs.

Kay works primarily with Sedition Hunters, which has around 20 members and the support of hundreds more.

They use geolocation and facial recognition software such as PimEyes and solicit information through Twitter.

Trump supporters clash with Capitol Police on January 6, 2021
Trump supporters clash with Capitol Police on January 6, 2021 WIN MCNAMEE GETTY IMAGES / AFP / File

The group does not publicly identify suspects by name, only by nicknames, and rigorously verify photos before posting them online or forwarding them to the FBI.

The FBI, like the attorney general, said the public had been of great assistance in the investigation.

“The FBI encourages the public to keep sending tips,” an FBI spokeswoman told AFP. “As we’ve seen with dozens of cases so far, advice matters.

“The FBI is working diligently behind the scenes to follow all avenues of investigation to verify public information and bring these criminals to justice,” she said.

Devorah Margolin, senior researcher in the Extremism Program at George Washington University, said social media played a “disproportionate role” in the events of January 6.

“Most of the people who attended these events didn’t think they were doing anything wrong,” said Margolin. “They were posting online. A criminal offense was committed and they documented it.”

Margolin said information obtained online, mostly from social media, appeared in 77% of the 704 January 6 criminal cases investigated by the program.

“What we don’t know is how much of this information comes from citizen sleuths or whistleblowers, and how much was found by the FBI or the DOJ themselves,” she said.

Aiden Bilyard, 19, was arrested in late November and charged with assault, destroying government property and entering a restricted building.

In his arrest report, the FBI noted that Bilyard was identified in open source reports as #Harvardsweats because of a gray Harvard sweatshirt he wore on January 6.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump in the Rotunda of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021
Supporters of US President Donald Trump in the Rotunda of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 Saul LOEB AFP / File

Ronald Loehrke, 30, was arrested in Georgia in early December on the basis in part of photographs published by Sedition Hunters.

Loehrke is charged with assault, obstruction of law enforcement and illegal entry.

Kay said the job is “very satisfying”, especially when it leads to an arrest.

“A lot of these people are very violent people,” she said. “It means a lot to me knowing that I have helped get these people off the streets.”


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