Click here to read GNET's latest report GNET Survey on the Role of Technology in Violent Extremism and the State of Research Community-Tech Industry Engagement

Selfie and Siege: Women’s Social Media Footprint and the US Capitol Hill Siege

Selfie and Siege: Women’s Social Media Footprint and the US Capitol Hill Siege
3rd March 2021 Devorah Margolin
In Insights

As of 25 February 2021, over 250 federal cases have been brought against individuals for their alleged involvement in the siege on Capitol Hill. Hailing from over forty states and the District of Columbia, court records associated with these individuals paint a clear picture of the central role played by social media in the events of that day. While some individuals were identified through news images streamed across our screens, in many cases, these men and women were identified through their own social media posts, documenting their every location and action. Looking through the images that have emerged and cases that have been filed, the majority of individuals alleged to have entered the US Capitol on 6 January were middle-aged men. According to the Program on Extremism dataset, almost 86% of the federal cases filed so far have been against men, with an average age of 39.

However, solely looking at the federal cases that have been filed to date does not complete the picture and underestimates the role women played on 6 January. Women too were present; women entered the Capitol, women made it onto the Senate floor, and women were killed in the ensuing violence. Women’s social media presence before, during, and after the Capitol Hill Siege shows that they not only took part in, but organised, led, and claimed ownership for the events of that day. As of 25 February, 36 federal cases have been filed against women. Similar to their male counterparts, the women federally charged for participating in the Capitol Hill siege were also middle-aged, with an average age of 45. Debunking both age and gender stereotypes, women were an active part of organising and participating in the siege. While details of the cases are still emerging, initial numbers from the Program on Extremism’s dataset to date show that approximately half of those charged with having participated, both men and women, posted on social media documenting their alleged involvement.

Participants ranged from members of organised militias to individuals who seemed unbothered by their alleged illegal entry into the  Capitol. Highlighting the lack of sophisticated operations for many of those involved in the siege, the majority of social media platforms used were mainstream platforms, rather than encrypted networks. For example, for both men and women, Facebook was the most popular social media platform for documenting their own alleged activities in the US Capitol. Individuals arrested have been alleged to have used a range of mainstream platforms – including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok. The widespread use of such platforms could be because rioters lacked security awareness or simply did not care and wanted to highlight their participation in the siege. Some of the more organised networks are alleged to have used more secure and peripheral social media platforms, such as Paler, Reddit, and Telegram. While it is too early to carry out a substantive quantitative analysis of the cases at present, this article explores how some women who were alleged participants in the US Capitol siege used social media to organise and document their activities.

Motivated by an assortment of ideologies ranging from conspiracy theories to domestic violent extremist ideologies, participants of the 6 January siege were there because they believed, for a variety of reasons, that the election was stolen. Many individuals involved did not think they were doing anything wrong. They simply thought they were upholding their patriotic duty and stopping the ‘steal’ of what they believed to be a stolen election. The prevalence of the hashtag #stopthesteal used on social media platforms by women involved in the 6 January events highlights this point. The hashtag was used by Jessica Watkins, an alleged leader in the militia group the Oath Keepers, who used it in Parler posts before and after storming the Capital. It was also used in a Facebook post by Rasha Abual-Ragheb, who had an alleged history of involvement in Facebook and Telegram chats associated with the New Jersey chapter of American Patriot 3%, a militia movement with affiliation to the wider Three Percenters concept. The pervasiveness of this hashtag reflects the worrying trend of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories online.

The diverse group of actors involved in the siege, using a variety of social media platforms to organise and communicate, also shows a disturbing trend for counter-terrorism officials. Some of these groups were more organised, using secure networks. For example, court documents related to a network of conspirators allegedly associated with the Oath Keepers, who planned travel and operations in the Capital siege, including four women, Jessica Watkins, Sandra Parker, Laura Steele, and Connie Meggs. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Watkins, an alleged leader of the group, and others used the push-talk application (app), Zello as a means of communication and coordination during the attack. The Zello app allows smartphones to act as Walkie-Talkies, while also providing messaging services and live location tracking for iOS or Android devices. Prior to the 6 January events, the FBI alleges that Watkins instructed a recruit to download the app since they would “all use Zello through the operations.” Court documents indicate that on 6 January, Watkins and others allegedly used a Zello channel titled “Stop the Steal J6” to provide location information and logistical details during the siege.

According to the federal criminal complaint, on her Parler page, Watkins, a 38-year-old bar owner and resident of Ohio, identifies as “C.O. [Commanding Officer] of the Ohio State Regular Militia,” which has known ties with the Oath Keepers, an extreme anti-government organisation with a track record of recruiting former law enforcement and military veterans. While militias are often male-dominated, women have a long history of being a part of these groups, and articles from as long ago as 1995 spotlight their leadership roles. Watkins, a military veteran herself, having served in the Army with a deployment to Afghanistan, was indicted with eight other individuals on charges ranging from conspiracy to hinder, delay, or stop the certification of the Electoral College vote, trespassing, and obstruction. Aside from her alleged use of Zello on 6 January, Watkins actively posted images and videos of herself and others on Parler, including a picture of herself in an Oath Keepers uniform, with the caption: “Me before forcing entry into the Capitol Building. #stopthesteal2 #stormthecapitol #oathkeepers #ohiomilitia.” Additional social media posts by Watkins appear to substantiate federal claims of her involvement in leading members of the Oath Keepers in the raid on the Capitol building.

While some women were part of organised groups, such as the Oath Keepers, others were more loosely affiliated, taking part with family, friends, and acquaintances. According to the court records, Jennifer “Jenna” Ryan, Katherine “Katie” Schwab, and Jason Lee Hyland, as well as two individuals who have yet to be publicly identified, all traveled to DC together via a private airplane organised by Hyland on Facebook. The group appears to be made up of friends and acquaintances brought together on social media over a shared ideology. On Facebook and Twitter, Ryan allegedly documented the group’s activities throughout the day, including a 21-minute Facebook Live post of the group. Ryan is even alleged to have posted a photo of herself next to a broken window at the Capitol building. Ryan’s active posting and heated rhetoric seem to be a point of contention for the group, with Schwab allegedly claiming “some of the videos that Ryan posted made members of the group look ‘bad’.” For the FBI, the prolific social media posts by the group on Facebook and Twitter helped to identify those in the group as well as track their actions throughout the day.

Others involved in the activities of the day were much less organised. For example, a handful of the women involved in that day adhere to QAnon. Originally a fringe concept but later seeping into more mainstream thought, the QAnon conspiracy theory advocates a “deep state” plot against former president Donald Trump, who was fending off an evil cabal of Democratic pedophiles. Rosanne Boyland, one of the women who participated and died in the siege, was reportedly a believer of the conspiracy theory and regularly posted QAnon-related content on her social media feeds.

Data from the federal cases show that at least three other women (Valerie Ehrke, Christina Gerding, and Christine Priola) were also alleged followers of QAnon. A December 2020, NPR/Ipsos public poll, which sampled 1,115 US adults over the age of eighteen, found that when presented with the statement that “[a] group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” only 47% could identify it as false. While 17% of participants believed it was true, a further 37% were unsure if this QAnon concept was true or false. When individuals believe misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, which are prevalent across the Internet and social media platforms, polarisation can occur which can lead to violence – as Pizzagate and the events on Capitol Hill display. Furthermore, during times of uncertainty where people are looking for comfort, stability, and even a reinforcement of their own ideas, conspiracy theories offer explanations, albeit bogus ones, while exploiting people’s fears.

Although a number of articles have asked the question of why women are attracted to extreme far-right ideologies that have many tenets aligning with concepts of male patriarchy and chauvinistic ideals, women have had a long history in extreme far-right movements. The 1920s saw the establishment of the Women’s KKK (WKKK), a woman-centric syndicate of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Although the WKKK did not engage in lynchings and other acts of violence associated with the all-male KKK organization, the WKKK embraced the racist formation and helped embed hateful ideologies into American society through social clubs, events, and rituals. Furthermore, fascist movements in the 20th century encouraged women to give birth to the next generation of adherents and be involved in the domestic realm, while European women in Germany, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom actively participated in fascist groups as members and voters, with a small number even training in armed combat. Even though extreme far-right movements are primarily composed of men, Ebner and Davey note the steady increase of women attracted to these movements, along with the creation of women-centric groups. Moreover, the Southern Poverty Law Center attributes some of this increase to Internet technologies which allow women virtual spaces to voice their opinions and ideologies.

As evidenced through the cases explored above, social media helped women organise their activities both before and during the US Capitol Hill Siege. While only making up about 14% of federal cases filed so far, women’s involvement on 6 January in right-wing conspiracies and militia movements has enduring implications for understanding the long-term impact of these ideologies and networks. While women have an extensive history in right-wing movements, social media and Internet technologies have amplified women’s voices. Furthermore, these movements emphasise women’s roles as wives and mothers in order to not only encourage women to give birth to future generations, but to indoctrinate their children with these ideologies. Women’s participation on 6 January debunked both age and gender stereotypes, and women were an active part of organising and participating in the siege both on- and off-line. Just as social media helped women organise their activities, it was also their downfall. As showcased in almost every indictment, social media aided law enforcement in gathering evidence, ultimately bringing perpetrators into the hands of the law.