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A theater of propaganda: The Capitol, cameras and selfies


New York: One of the defining images of the Capitol siege was of a man dangling from the balcony of the Senate chamber. Clad in black and with a helmet over his head, he might have been hard to identify even after he paused to sit in a leather chair at the top of the Senate dais and hold up a fist.

But Josiah Colt made it easy. He posted a video to his Facebook page moments later, bragging about being the first to reach the chamber floor and sit in Nancys Pelosis chair (he was wrong). He used a slur to describe Pelosi and called her “a traitor.”

A little later, the 34-year-old from Boise, Idaho, posted again. This time, he sounded more anxious. “I dont know what to do,” Colt said in a video hed soon delete but not before it was cached online. “Im in downtown D.C. Im all over the news now.”

Colt was far from the only one documenting the insurrection from within last Wednesday in Washington. Many in the mob that ransacked the Capitol did so while livestreaming, posting on Facebook and taking selfies, turning the seat of American lawmaking into a theater of real-time — and often strikingly ugly and violent — far-right propaganda.

“This extremist loop feeds itself. The folks who are watching and commenting and encouraging and sometimes giving some cash are supporting the individual on the ground. And hes supporting their fantasies,” says Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation Leagues Center on Extremism.

“Selfie culture,” Segal says, “has become so much part of the norm that its almost second nature when youre carrying out a terrorist insurrection.”

Taken together, the fragmented feeds from Wednesday’s incursion form a tableau of an ill-conceived insurrection — as full of “I was here” posturing for social media as of ideological revolution — and one that was given far more latitude than most peaceful Black Lives Matters protests were in 2020. In hundreds of images, the fallacy of a far-right brand of “patriotism” was laid bare.

The modern Capitol had previously been besieged before only in Hollywood fiction. Marauding aliens in “Mars Attacks!” Ensnarling ivy in “Logans Run.”

Blown to bits in “Independence Day.” But the imagery of last weeks siege offered something far more banal if no less chilling: a warped cinema verité of right-wing extremism with waving Confederate flags and white-power poses in Capitol halls.

Though many involved Wednesday in Washington were Trump supporters without designs on violence, the visuals illustrate that some were clearly there to summon mayhem if not outright bloodshed. The call to the Capitol drew many of the right’s extremist factions — some of whom helped lead the charge.

The white nationalist Tim Gionet, known online as “Baked Alaska” and a participant in the “Unite the Right” rally at Charlottesville, streamed live from congressional offices, gleefully documenting the break-in for more than 15,000 viewers on the streaming platform Dlive.

The service, ostensibly for gamers, has grown into an attractive tool for white nationalists. Nick Fuentes, a leader of the white supremacist “Groyper Army,” streamed on Dlive from outside the Capitol. He later tweeted that the siege was “awesome.”

Journalists documenting the chaos, and in some cases suffering attacks from violent protesters, captured the storming of the Capitol. But the pervasive self-documentation of the rioters told another story: the on-the-ground culmination of an online alternative reality fueled by QAnon conspiracies, false claims of fraud in the election and Trumps own rhetoric.

“In their minds they had impunity. Im having trouble understanding how these people could believe that. At the same time, I can see that its of a piece with the Trump family,” says Larry Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies and author of the upcoming “Empire of Resentment: Populisms Toxic Embrace of Nationalism.”

“Theyre going to be prosecuted,” he says of those involved, and “they have provided the evidence.”

Federal law enforcement officials have pledged an exhaustive investigation into the rampage that left five people dead, including Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick.

They are relying in part on the social media trail many left behind. “The goal here is to identify people and get them,” Ken Kohl, the top deputy federal prosecutor in Washington, told reporters Friday.

Among those arrested so far is Richard Barnett, who was photographed sitting in Pelosis office with his feet on her desk. Outside the Capitol, he proudly clutched mail he said belonged to Pelosi.

The 60-year-old Barnett, from Gravette, Arkansas, faces up to a year in federal prison for three charges including theft of public property.

Also arrested was Derrick Evans, a newly elected Republican from Delaware, who had posted video on social media of himself clamoring at the Capitol door.

“Were in! Keep it moving, baby!” Evans shouted in a packed doorway of Trump supporters. Inside the Capitol, he chanted: “Our house! Our house!”





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