They are the secretive group of anonymous individuals working collectively to parse publicly available videos, frame by frame, just to get a glimpse of a face in the crowd at the January 6th Capitol Invasion. They are the watchers on the newsfeed scanning for every clue about the identities of right-wing extremists. They are the sedition hunters who collect as much evidence and information about Capitol invaders as possible and then pass their dossiers to law enforcement for prosecution.
I became hooked on the puzzle and wanted to understand how they do this work, why they do it and what it might tell us about the appropriation of Columbus statues by right-wing extremist movements. IH (a pseudonym) has been a hunter since January 7th, spending from 40 to 100 hours per week chasing down digital clues, archiving, previewing, timelining and building dossiers on the rioters and their associates.
The investigation has sprawled beyond the events of Jan. 6 to become a complex, open-source intelligence crowdsourced investigation into extremism that blurs boundaries between virtual and real worlds. IH is on the new digital front lines of a war for American society where social media is alternatively propaganda, combat zone and criminal evidence. In short, they are battling the likes of Michael Flynn’s “digital army.”
The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Any details that may have exposed IH’S identity have been removed in order to protect their safety.
Tocci: How long have you been doing this?
IH: Since January 7th.
What motivated you to get into it? What was the first impetus to get in and start hunting?
I watched—like many others did—what happened on January 6th and was horrified by it. I was left feeling like my soul was turning inside me when I saw the senseless acts of violence that day. In particular, the first thing that I had seen was footage of a female officer who was blonde, fairly small, between 5′-5’4″. And one of the male rioters had pushed her and thrown her so hard that you can see her hit her head against stairs and then pass out.
I had this moment, and I had a conversation with a friend of mine about it, where my gut reaction was like, “What kind of guy hits a girl?” I thought, “It takes a very, very, very special piece of shit” to do this to a woman. This was actually an Italian guy who is your Jersey Shore-style kind of guy. Months later we ended up identifying him, and it turns out he has quite a long rap sheet, including having beaten a woman in a canal and left her. She was pregnant. And a long ugly history of domestic violence. It is a gross oversight of our justice system that someone like that was there that day and no one knew about it. I am both a survivor of my father’s homicide and a crime victim myself. There are so many ways in which the justice system fails victims that it’s not even funny.
There were a lot of difficult things going on in my life at the time, including being quarantined for a month. I was looking for a way to cope with my stress and make sure that I didn’t pace a hole into the ground. I knew signing petitions didn’t work, and I wasn’t going to donate money without knowing the beneficiaries, so someone introduced me to the various Capitol and Sedition Hunters groups.
What’s your long-term motivation for doing this?
My long-term motivation, genuinely, is a fear for Donald Trump to be president again in three-plus years. I felt like this was America’s Beer Hall Putsch moment. So my motivation is really ensuring that the extremists on either end of the political spectrum get tamped down. Trump allowed for extreme behavior to be okay, to be acceptable. And just regular human decency has gone by the wayside. That’s not what I want for my kid.
My grandfather was killed in the Holocaust and a lot of my father’s side of the family was also killed by Nazis. My dad was a child survivor and came here to give us a better life. I want to make sure that I do that for my kid by not having crazy extremists running amok.
I’m interested in how you do your work. How do you go from seeing an image or a video to knowing so much about these individuals? Could you talk through the example of the Italian guy who pushed the woman police officer?
There’s a lot of us, and really the true OSINT (open-source intelligence) experience comes from the collective views and thoughts of many people. When it is working at its best, it is very powerful in that respect.
We’re up to about 2,000 people that went inside (the Capitol Building) that day. People were like, “Oh, 200, 300 people went inside.” Mm-mm (negative). Try over 2,000. Estimates are that over 10,000 people entered the restricted area.
What we do is we put together a spec sheet. We watch the footage. We follow them through the footage and watch their actions and then annotate what they’re doing. We give them a searchable hashtag that anyone in the community can add to. One of the guys was #FacePaintBlowhard or #NeedsPruneJuice or #BlackBeanieLady. #QShaman, #SwimGogglesPB and #Foxitis are all Italian, by the way.
We’ll search through videos, publicly available footage, pictures, whatnot. And then we’ll try to identify that same person throughout, and then we’ll hashtag that video. So then anyone who searches it knows that he shows up in that video. Then we have some people that are really good at timing and mapping. They will look at the footage and look at clues around the footage to then be able to pinpoint the exact time and the geocoordinates for the person. In some cases, those geocoordinates connect to a cell phone so that you can help pinpoint who the perp is.
The Department of Justice puts out their publicly available court documents that we comb through, look for footage. We’ll also look at everything that they’re wearing, and we create a sheet that says, “All right, this is a hat made by this manufacturer.” A lot of these people were wearing their uniforms for work, or clothing with some sort of insignia that was unique – that we call #SeditionEmployers.
Then there are some cases where people are totally masked up and we can’t necessarily see what they look like. So we have to backtrack through footage and see if we can find them unmasked, to give us more details of what they look like. #INDIVIDUAL4 is one of our white whales.
Oh, here’s the other thing—we archive everything we find. Archiving, in my humble opinion, is most important because long after we’re gone and people are studying this, all they’ll have is information captured and organized in archives. We need to also remember that this footage is the only voice of the nine or ten people that died. That is all we have left to tell us the stories about what happened to them. I’m constantly scouring the web for new stuff.
So once you compile all this, then you can document that someone’s committed a crime, what do you do with that info?
Different groups do different things with that info. And what is done with that info is also why there are different groups. And what people are comfortable with. I tend to be the type that is more comfortable with a little bit of all of it and knows that there’s a really fine dance between managing law enforcement, media, the general public and local activists.
A lot of times if law enforcement missed something or there’s something really important needed before a trial date then those are the times that going to the media makes sense. But some Hunters will go to the media first, while others don’t believe in reporting to the authorities at all. I struggle with that group and struggle with the ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) group because that to me is another form of extremism. Though that’s also a misnomer for some who believe the institution, not the individuals are bastards.
What I’m doing is legal, by the way. Nothing illegal.
It feels like the work you do should be done by law enforcement, should be done by the FBI or other state agencies at different levels. How do you think about this?
Let me preface by saying that I used to be a much more black-and-white person in my approach to things and my understanding of world views.
In an ideal world, sure, the FBI should be doing it all. And you know what? In fact, they should’ve already been on top of it and it should’ve never happened. Everybody knew it was going to happen. But I think part of that speaks to there being challenges within the law enforcement community as well, politically. Like they are just as divided as we are as a country and struggling internally with some of that.
But I think the other aspect that’s important here and speaks a little bit more to me being an idealist is that it is the community’s responsibility to hold extremists accountable. Whether it’s the FBI doing it or us virtually or whomever, we need to make sure this type of violent extremism is not okay and is not accepted in our community.
One of the things that makes me think about is the harassment sedition hunters get both from the right and the left. So how do you protect yourself?
How I protect myself was a learning process. I got outed by old-school KKK in the early days. That was before I knew all the stuff that I know now. So I shut down my first account.
I had to shut down my last account after left-wing extremists, who are ACAB and have a history of doing this type of stuff (doxing and other forms of harassment), did not like that I was calling them out for spreading misinformation.
It’s hard when you might be able to get solid data from an extremist. But I don’t want to work with them because they will burn you, too. Several people justify it by saying they’re “on my side” just because they are left-wing. I don’t find double standards to be healthy nor productive.
I really want to get to where you’re seeing overlaps, if at all, with Italian Americans, especially around protests with Columbus statues.
There is, and I started looking sort of historically when that started to pop up. But one of the overlapping themes is that it’s almost like Trump’s campaign and sort of the Roger Stone, old-school, Nixon-style campaign of creating these subset groups with mantras that create a web of overlapping things. I don’t know why or if people who are protecting the Columbus Day statues and whatnot are more conservative politically. That’s why I don’t know if all the people that want the statutes to stay, are they all Republicans? Do you know?
My sense of it is that it’s messy. There are certainly Republicans, but then there are others who are like traditional Democrats—they live in cities, they’re a part of the trades or construction unions, and typically I would expect them to vote Democratic. But Trump raised this as an identity issue, which activated them in a way that they hadn’t been before. All of a sudden it’s, “Yeah, I’m ready to fight over being Italian American,” and “We’ve got to protect the statue.”
I think there was a conflation of that national identity with statues. I think they’re warmongers, and any place that they can wreak havoc is also a recruitment ground. I don’t even know why Remy Del Toro, who is by no means Italian, shows up at those rallies in Chicago. They’re expressing their presence by identifying with nationalistic themes and are terrorizing communities.
I looked to see if there was some sort of thing or event or blatantly obvious type of connection to the Proud Boys and Three Percenters with the Italian thing, but there isn’t. And a lot of times the ones that go from the Proud Boys, they’re not even fucking Italian. Like I saw Dick Schwetz at one of them—isn’t he Jewish? He’s also a #failedMagaQandidate.
After having done this work for a while now, what’s your hope for the future, and what’s your fear for the future?
Oh, I’m hopeful about a lot of things. One is creating a system, process and method that makes more sense, that could be replicated when other things like this arise. It can’t be something that we do passively. We can’t sit back and watch systems, municipalities and people discriminate against and abuse others. We have to take a stand for accountability collectively, and that’s challenging.
I have a community fear that Trump will be elected again in 2024, and that this wave of extremism becomes more normal in this country.
My only personal fear at this point is that I come from a long line of murdered people. And I am concerned that I may have created a self-fulfilling prophecy in making myself into a target to be the next in line in my family to be murdered. My dad was fucked up for his father being murdered in the Holocaust, and I was fucked up for my father being murdered. And I certainly don’t want my child to be fucked up because I’m murdered. But I’ve had this discussion with them and they understand what [I’m doing] and why I’m doing this.
It’s been scary times. I’ve been against guns since my father was shot. I never wanted to handle a gun nor anything to do with one. And this year, I got to the point where I signed up for lessons and am learning how to protect myself. It’s rare that something fundamentally changes you—like changes a core belief that has been part of your identity. This has fundamentally changed me.
We have a long road as a country. Everyone’s like, “Oh, yay, Biden got elected. Everything’s great.” No, it’s not how it works. We have hard work to do as a country—working towards a more perfect union—but I’m scared people are too tired, overwhelmed and suffering from their own tragedies to address it. But I am present, ready and committed to doing my part.