The Current

'Significant' risk of misidentifying U.S. Capitol attackers from viral footage, says researcher

A researcher who is archiving images and video from the attack on the U.S. Capitol says the work of identifying those involved must be "conducted very thoroughly, very slowly."

Identifying those involved must be 'conducted very thoroughly': Giancarlo Fiorella

Trump supporters storm into the U.S. Capitol during clashes with police. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Story Transcript

There is a "significant" risk of misidentifying individuals in footage of the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week, says a researcher involved in archiving and analyzing pictures and videos of the unrest.

"What tends to happen in these situations is that people tend to get, I think, overzealous," said Giancarlo Fiorella, a senior researcher with Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence firm.

"There's sort of a crowd mentality that can form on online platforms like Twitter or Reddit, where people think that, you know, somebody's ears in a picture look sort of similar to the ears of a person that they found on Facebook," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Somebody will make a 'match' and then they'll run away with that."

Researchers at Bellingcat are working to collect and store images and video from the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, when rioters supporting U.S. President Trump stormed the building in a bid to thwart Congress's formal confirmation of Joe Biden as the incoming president. Lawmakers were rushed to safety, and five people died, including one police officer.

Fiorella said the database is open to the public, and anyone who sees footage from the attack online can direct it to Bellingcat to be archived. 

That way if those videos are deleted by the people who posted them — "many of them the perpetrators themselves" — they would be preserved as part of the historical record, he said.

But he said the work of identifying individuals has to be "conducted very thoroughly, very slowly."

"You're not looking just for matching eyes or ears. You want to be able to match very clearly things like scars, tattoos, freckles — any unique identifier," he said.

"Once you have a series of those identifiers, then you can make the determination that there's a high probability or a certainty that somebody in a video from the capital is the person that you found on Facebook." 

He said that U.S. authorities also have individuals "who are devoted to finding these images and identifying them, connecting them to names."

The FBI called for help identifying suspects in viral images following the unrest, with dozens of arrests made in the days that followed

Footage offers timeline of events: researcher

Fiorella watched events unfold live last week, saying that his organization "kicked it into high gear" as soon as the building was stormed. 

"[We] decided that this was a significant moment that was going to produce a substantial amount of open source information, and that we were going to need the public's help in collecting that and archiving it," he said.

Bellingcat is not only archiving the footage, but compiling connected images that may explain how events unfolded. That includes the death of Ashli Babbitt, an ardent Trump supporter among those who broke into the building. In a statement Thursday, U.S. Capitol Police confirmed that Babbitt had been shot by an officer as protesters were forcing their way into the House Chamber. 

Fiorella said "the first reports that we heard and the first evidence that we saw of Ashli Babbitt's shooting were images of her being wheeled out of the Capitol — she was receiving CPR on a stretcher."

He said Bellingcat's researchers then "began to scour social media for any video, any mention of a shooting, any images that might have captured that moment."

"Once we identified them, we were able to piece them together to build an account of what happened at the Speaker's Lobby door inside the Capitol," he said.

How the siege on the U.S. Capitol unfolded

3 years ago
Duration 3:44
CBC News’ David Common breaks down what happened on Capitol Hill on Wednesday and how U.S. President Donald Trump stoked discontent among his supporters before he lost the election.

The same technique is used to "build a full account of exactly what happened" on a wider scale throughout the day, he said.

Fiorella said that includes events from the nearby Trump rally that morning — where the president is accused of inciting the violence, and now faces impeachment proceedings — through the march to the Capitol, initial scuffles with police, and breaking into the building.

"That is something that we can do by tracing and by collecting all of these videos that people have captured and by putting it together in chronological order so that we can build that fuller picture of what happened from beginning to end." 

He said there's "potentially thousands of images online that the people who were committing these crimes themselves recorded, and proudly shared on their Facebook accounts and on their Twitter accounts."

"That's all available online for anybody to find."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Cameron Perrier and Julie Crysler.

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