2021 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol

About the Project

We all know what happened on January 6th: An insurrectionist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the counting of electoral college votes, whipped on by a president who was losing his grip on power. Or maybe a group of enthusiastic patriots were invited in by the president and authorities there, and marched their way through the peoples’ house to make their voices heard.

Without documentary evidence, it’s easy to rely on motivated reasoning and political expediency to characterize events. While politicians argued about how to characterize the day, ProPublica journalist Jeff Kao was busy doing what he does best: gathering the facts. He obtained from a source a cache of more than a million videos that had been shared on right-wing social media site Parler, a site where many of the would-be insurrectionists spent time, before it was taken down by its web host.

Quickly, Jeff and members of ProPublica’s News Applications and Data teams began combing through the collection. We used metadata to home in on a large set taken by mobile phones that day and posted to the site. After reviewing many of them, we realized we had something special: thousands of videos of the day as seen through the eyes of those who were marching in the crowd.

We put out a call to the rest of the organization and asked for volunteers to review the videos. We wanted to surface as many interesting or newsworthy videos from the day as we could, and that meant ProPublica journalists had to watch each one and tag them with information. Were they in the Capitol? Was the video violent or bloody? Was it interesting? More than 30 of our colleagues answered the call and jumped in to help.

In the end, less than two weeks after Jan. 6, we published more than 500 videos that together created a social media-like experience where users could scroll down to watch videos from the day in chronological order. In them, you can see placid flag waving give way to rising tensions during Trump’s speech, you flow along with the mob as they march toward the capitol, and you find yourself enveloped in tear gas and shattered glass as the crowd forces its way into the Capitol building. We color-coded videos by whether they were around D.C., near the Capitol, or in the Capitol. Users can filter down to see just those videos, or scroll through to get the full experience.

Our colleague Alec MacGillis took stock of the footage and wrote an urgent, bracing overview of the day. As you read his words and scroll through the project, it’s impossible to deny the disturbing reality of the day.