For many insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol on 6 January, self-incriminating messages, photos and videos that they broadcast on social media before, during and after the attack are influencing their criminal sentences.
Earlier this month, US district judge Amy Jackson read aloud some of Russell Peterson’s posts before she sentenced the Pennsylvania man to 30 days imprisonment.
“Overall I had fun lol,” Peterson had posted on Facebook, using the social media abbreviation for “laugh out loud”.
The judge told Peterson that his posts made it “extraordinarily difficult” for her to show him leniency.
“The ‘lol’ particularly stuck in my craw because, as I hope you’ve come to understand, nothing about January 6th was funny,” Jackson added. “No one locked in a room, cowering under a table for hours, was laughing.”
Among the biggest takeaways so far from the justice department’s prosecution of the insurrection is how large a role social media has played, with much of the most damning evidence coming from rioters’ own words and videos, in addition to evidence of entering the Capitol, destroying property or hurting people.
Extremist supporters of Donald Trump broke into the Capitol following days of build-up among the rightwing and after a rally in Washington DC, where the then president urged the crowd to try to stop the official certification by Congress of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 presidential election.
FBI agents have identified scores of rioters from public posts and records subpoenaed from social media platforms. Prosecutors used posts to build cases and judges are now weighing them in favor of tougher sentences.
As of last Friday, more than 50 people have been sentenced for federal crimes related to the insurrection.
In at least 28 of those cases, prosecutors factored a defendant’s social media posts into their requests for stricter sentences, according to an Associated Press review of court records.
Many insurrectionists used social media to celebrate the violence or spew hateful rhetoric. Others used it to spread misinformation, promote baseless conspiracy theories or play down their actions.
Prosecutors also have accused a few defendants of trying to destroy evidence by deleting posts.
Approximately 700 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the riot. About 150 of them have pleaded guilty.
More than 20 defendants have been sentenced to jail or prison terms or to time already served behind bars. Over a dozen others received home confinement sentences.
Prosecutors recommended probation for Indiana hair salon owner Dona Sue Bissey, but the judge in the case, Tanya Chutkan, sentenced her to two weeks in jail for her participation in the riot.
The judge noted that Bissey posted a screenshot of a Twitter post that read: “This is the First time the U.S. Capitol had been breached since it was attacked by the British in 1814.”
Chutkan said: “When Ms Bissey got home, she was not struck with remorse or regret for what she had done. She’s celebrating and bragging about her participation in what amounted to an attempted overthrow of the government.”
FBI agents obtained a search warrant for Andrew Ryan Bennett’s Facebook account after getting a tip that the Maryland man live-streamed video from inside the Capitol.
Two days before the riot, Bennett posted a Facebook message that said: “You better be ready chaos is coming and I will be in DC on 1/6/2021 fighting for my freedom!”
Judge James Boasberg singled out that post as an “aggravating” factor weighing in favor of house arrest instead of a fully probationary sentence.
“The cornerstone of our democratic republic is the peaceful transfer of power after elections,” the judge told Bennett. “What you and others did on January 6th was nothing less than an attempt to undermine that system of government.”
Meanwhile, videos captured New Jersey gym owner Scott Fairlamb punching a police officer outside the Capitol. His Facebook and Instagram posts showed he was prepared to commit violence there and had no remorse for his actions, prosecutors said.
Senior Judge Royce Lamberth said other rioters in Fairlamb’s position would be “well advised” to join him in pleading guilty.
“You couldn’t have beat this if you went to trial on the evidence that I saw,” Lamberth said before sentencing Fairlamb to 41 months in prison.
The role of social media has drawn criticism of the tech companies behind the relevant platforms. Facebook was shown to have ignored warning signs in the build-up to the attack.