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Amateur sleuths help to identify hundreds of suspected Jan. 6 rioters

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In the days after the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 an informal community started coming together online to identify people who took part. These amateur sleuths have come to be known as sedition hunters. And they've been a big help to police. NPR's Odette Yousef is here to tell us more. Odette, all right, sedition hunters has a HGTV reality show vibe to it. Who are they?

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: (Laughter) Well, at the beginning, A, it seemed like they were anybody with a laptop, a free hour and some outrage over what they witnessed on live television last January. But these are regular people who realized that the FBI would never really be able to identify the estimated 2,000 people who entered the Capitol and who wanted to help. So they've basically been scouring publicly available resources online, like Twitter, Parler, video platforms and other social media, to gather information about people and match faces to names. And so far, they're believed to have helped identify hundreds of suspected rioters.

MARTINEZ: How are the sedition hunters organized?

YOUSEF: Well, there have been two big collectives on Twitter called Sedition Hunters and Capitol Hunters, which have been kind of a clearinghouse for information. But there are also a bunch of independent researchers and some smaller crews that have organized. One of those smaller crews is a group that Forrest Rogers helped to bring together. Rogers is a German American living in Switzerland. And he joined up with a bunch of other online sleuths in the days after January 6 to form a group called the Deep State Dogs. And about a week after the riot, they settled on their first investigation. It was a woman who from some videos made them wonder if she was some sort of congressional insider. And that's where our story begins with Forrest Rogers.

FORREST ROGERS: One of the people we were working on at the time was Bullhorn Lady, or Pink Hat Lady.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RACHEL POWELL: Other side of this door, right here where you're standing...

ROGERS: She was giving instruction through the bullhorn, saying, go left, drop down. There's a glass. There's a door behind it, et cetera, et cetera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: There's a door in the other room - one in the rear and one to the right.

ROGERS: Which, of course, gave us all the impression that this was a very informed individual.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: ...Coordinate together if you're going to take this building.

YOUSEF: Rogers' group combed through images and videos posted publicly and privately that day. When it spotted this woman with a pink hat, it shared the image on Twitter and asked the public for tips. Ultimately, using the online evidence, Rogers' group matched her to an individual in a video at a separate event. There, she gave her first name and said she was from Mercer County, Pa. Less than two weeks after they'd started investigating her, the Deep State Dogs had identified Rachel Powell. They sent the information to the FBI. Rogers also worked with journalist Ronan Farrow on a story that appeared in the New Yorker magazine, where Powell acknowledged her involvement. A few days later, she was arrested. In the beginning, there were mistakes. Some people were incorrectly identified as being at the Capitol.

MARY: But it did help us to professionalize a little bit more, right? So we were definitely more careful.

YOUSEF: Mary has been working with a group called Capitol Terrorists Exposers from her home in The Hague. For security concerns, NPR has agreed only to use her first name. She says she's amazed at how quickly the sedition-hunting community organized itself. They agreed on hashtag nicknames for rioters like Pink Hat Lady. Some built whole websites to organize videos and photos into searchable databases. And they've chosen lanes.

MARY: We are specifically focused on the Oath Keepers.

YOUSEF: So far, Mary says her group has identified one cluster of the far-right group the Oath Keepers that entered the building. It's now working on a second group. But a year in, sedition hunters have found some areas where they don't all agree, like which rioters to investigate. Forrest Rogers again.

ROGERS: Basically, the minute they stepped onto Capitol grounds, they were trespassing. So they were committing a crime. But in my opinion, that's just civil disobedience.

YOUSEF: Rogers' group has focused on rioters who were violent and hard to identify, perhaps because their faces were obscured. Mary's crew is investigating all Oath Keepers who showed up that day, regardless of whether they entered the Capitol or committed a crime. This difference points to another question where sedition hunters may disagree, what to do with positive identifications? For Mary, there's tension here and some history. She's done this work before. In 2017, Mary worked to identify white nationalists and neo-Nazis who staged a violent rally in Charlottesville. Many activists who are doing that don't work directly with law enforcement. And Mary says she still doesn't.

MARY: I'm very much against mass incarceration. And I do not like the American justice system at all (laughter).

YOUSEF: But at the same time, Mary says violent rioters should face consequences. So instead of reporting tips to the FBI, her group sends information to journalists. For Forrest Rogers, the whole point of doing the work is to help the FBI.

ROGERS: Are we supposed to report them to Santa Claus to put them on the bad boy list or what? I mean, I don't know what the alternative would be if it would not be to have these people face justice.

YOUSEF: Reporter Ryan Reilly says even if the sedition-hunting community were to stop investigating rioters today, we're looking at a very long tail to their work. Reilly is with HuffPost and one of the most well-sourced journalists within the sedition-hunting community.

RYAN REILLY: This is going to unfold, I would say, at least over the next - I would say, definitely well into 2024, we're still going to be seeing new cases.

MARTINEZ: Odette, we just heard reporter Ryan Reilly saying the sedition hunters are still at work. So it's been a year. How much more work are we talking about?

YOUSEF: Well, Reilly says the FBI is still following up on hundreds of names provided by sedition hunters. And, you know, among sedition hunters, there are different opinions on whether they should continue. For Rogers, many of the most violent actors who were in the Capitol have already been identified. But Mary's still in the thick of it. She wants to know the full extent of planning that groups like the Oath Keepers had done leading up to January 6. So for her, this is an ongoing project.

MARTINEZ: Of course, Rogers and Mary are two sedition hunters of - what? - you said maybe hundreds of them. So to what extent were you able to speak with others?

YOUSEF: Well, these are two sedition hunters that went on record. I was in touch with others off the record. But very few are willing to be publicly identified because there are risks to doing this work. Mary has been doxed - meaning her personal information, including pictures of where she lives in The Hague, have been published. And she says her brother's business has been targeted. And even within some of these small crews that have been working together so closely for the past year, you know, they hardly know anything about each other. You know, they don't know each other's names, backgrounds or even which country they're in.

MARTINEZ: What did the sedition hunters tell you, ultimately, about the sense that they might have that they're actually making a difference?

YOUSEF: You know, they acknowledged to me the shifts that we've been seeing in the U.S. in the last year, like growing support for political violence in America. And they know their work might not change things like that, A. But still, they told me they're committed to holding people accountable and to doing something. And this feels like something that they can do.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Odette Yousef. Thank you very much.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIDES FROM NEBULA'S "HIGGS BOSON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.