CJR Outbox

The mob that stormed the Capitol was its own media 

January 8, 2021

As a mob swarmed the Capitol building on Wednesday, images and videos of the event spread across social media in close to real time, many going viral on Twitter and Facebook before cable news networks covering the events could verify or report them. One video showed a group of rioters surrounding a pile of Associated Press equipment, trying to burn or damage it. “We are the news now,” they shouted. Many in the circle were capturing the moment with cellphones.

“It’s a term or a phrase we’ve heard from QAnon supporters for a while now,” said Sharon Kann, research director at Media Matters for America, referring to the adherents of a sprawling conspiracy theory that has come to believe Donald Trump is waging a war against the forces of darkness, or Satan himself. And it means, she said, that they mistrust expertise and particularly reporting. 

What we saw on Wednesday is that they have created their own media: unfiltered, unedited, and by, for, and to each other in the form of posts, images, videos, and, most notably, livestreams. What much of the mob was actually doing in the Capitol, if you looked closely, was capturing images of itself for other members of the mob. And for a brief moment, the images on their screens were being reflected throughout the world.

One of the first images of the destruction of Associated Press gear to spread on Twitter was captured in a livestream hosted on a platform called DLive, initially a competitor to the video game streaming service Twitch, that has become a hub for white supremacist influencers. A major draw of the platform is the ease with which streamers can collect donations from their viewers, through a virtual currency called “lemons,” with each worth a fraction of a cent in real terms. 

Megan Squire, a computer science professor and researcher at Elon University and a fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been following the alt-right on DLive since last April. The Southern Poverty Law Center published several articles based on Squire’s research, which found that at least five of the site’s streamers were broadcasting live from the riots. 

Sure enough, journalists spotted a number of influencers from this alternative media ecosystem on Wednesday. Many built their followings on mainstream platforms like YouTube and Facebook before being removed and forced to find more obscure alternatives. (Even so, many of their followers still gather on Facebook pages and groups. Facebook was one of several platforms used to plan and rally people ahead of the riot.) 

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One such user, Tim Gionet, who streams under the moniker Baked Alaska, earned at least $222 while streaming at the Capitol riots, not including profits from some videos that were removed. The total did not include donations solicited through other platforms. Gionet was among the rioters whom images show in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and was heard in the stream telling viewers, “Trust the plan,” a common QAnon slogan.

DLive streamers who weren’t in the Capitol also jumped in on the action. One simply broadcast a split screen of other live feeds from this alternative media, side by side with traditional news broadcasts. It was like a watch party, while viewers filled their comments sections with calls for war and murder. There was a palpable sense of excitement and awe at the visual similarity between their own streams and the news broadcasts. The channel earned $530 over twelve hours online. The user had made similar videos broadcasting news footage and livestreams during Kyle Rittenhouse’s January court hearings and in the immediate aftermath of the Nashville bombing in December. One of DLive’s most profitable streamers, Nicholas Fuentes, a Holocaust denier and Trump adherent, made over $43,000 on the platform in the last two months of 2020 alone. He has admitted he attended the riot but has denied reports he entered the Capitol building. 

“A lot of these guys are online and they’re watching streams almost twenty-four hours a day,” Squire said of the viewers. She remembers logging on to DLive at eight-thirty in the morning on December 22 to find Fuentes streaming himself playing video games. He began after his weeknight broadcast and had apparently stayed up the whole night. “His followers watched him the whole time and then went to another stream as soon as he was done,” Squire said. “This is their world, just to watch content, in this video format, all the time.” 

After coming under scrutiny following the streams from Washington on Wednesday, DLive released a statement saying that it had “zero tolerance towards any forms of violence and illegal activities.” The statement also said that “we have suspended 3 accounts, forced offline 5 channels, banned 2 accounts from live streaming and permanently removed over 100 past broadcasts from our platform.” Gionet’s videos from DC remain available, as does one from Fuentes yesterday telling people who were in the Capitol to “keep that to yourself” to avoid legal trouble.

If DLive takes more drastic measures, there are always other options. Many, including the YouTube alternative BitChute, allow for some form of monetization. “The fragmentation of not just media platforms but information ecosystems is something that’s extremely challenging to deal with,” Kann says.

After Wednesday’s events, a since-deleted video taken by Derrick Evans, a West Virginia lawmaker and participant in the storming of the Capitol, spread across social media. “I was simply there as an independent member of the media to film history,” Evans said in a statement posted to his Facebook account. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Megan Squire’s university affiliation.

Ian W. Karbal is a former CJR fellow.