At least eight defendants charged in the Jan. 6 riot have identified themselves as a journalist or a documentary filmmaker, including three people arrested this month, according to an Associated Press review of court records in nearly 400 federal cases.Even credentialed reporters and news photographers are not immune from prosecution if they break a law on the job, said Jane Kirtley, who teaches media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota.
The insurrection led to the deaths of five people, including a police officer, and there were hundreds of injuries. Some rioters manhandled and menaced the reporters and photographers who are credentialed to cover Congress and were trying to cover the mayhem that day. A group of AP journalists had photographic equipment stolen and destroyed outside the building.
One defendant, Shawn Witzemann, told authorities he was inside the Capitol during the riot as part of his work in livestreaming video at protests and has since argued that he was there as a journalist. That explanation did not sway the FBI. The plumber from Farmington, New Mexico, is charged with joining in demonstrating in the Capitol while Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory over Donald Trump.
“I seek truth. I speak to sources. I document. I provide commentary. It’s everything that a journalist is,” Witzemann told a New Mexico television station after his arrest April 6. He did not respond to a social media message and email from the AP.
Witzemann’s nightly news show is titled the “Armenian Council for Truth in Journalism” — satirically, his attorney says. On its YouTube page, which has just over 300 subscribers, the show says it “delivers irreverent and thought provoking commentary and analysis, on an eclectic range of subjects.”
Another defendant works for Infowars, the right-wing website operated by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Others have fringe platforms named “Political Trance Tribune,” “Insurgence USA,” “Thunderdome TV” and “Murder the Media News.”
But while the internet has given more people a platform to use their voice, the definition of a “journalist” is not that broad when put into practice in court, said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, who used to practice media law as an attorney.
She said it is an easy case to make that Capitol riot defendants were not journalists because reporters and photographers must have credentials to work there. She said any defendant captured on video encouraging rioters cannot credibly claim to be a journalist.
“You are, at that point, an activist with a cellphone, and there were a lot of activists with copyrighted videos who sold them to news organizations,” Dalglish said. “That doesn’t make them journalists.”
“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Kirtley said.
Sunday, April 18, 2021
Two and a half months before extremists invaded the U.S. Capitol, the far-right wing of the internet suffered a brief collapse. All at once, in the final weeks of the country’s presidential campaign, a handful of prominent sites catering to White supremacists and adherents of the QAnon conspiracy movement stopped functioning. To many of the forums’ most devoted participants, the outage seemed to prove the American political struggle was approaching its apocalyptic endgame. “Dems are making a concerted move across all platforms,” read one characteristic tweet. “The burning of the land foreshadows a massive imperial strike back in the next few days.”
In fact, there’d been no conspiracy to take down the sites; they’d crashed because of a technical glitch with VanwaTech, a tiny company in Vancouver, Wash., that they rely on for various kinds of network infrastructure. They went back online with a simple server reset about an hour later, after the proprietor, 23-year-old Nick Lim, woke up from a nap at his mom’s condo.
Lim founded VanwaTech in late 2019. He hosts some websites directly and provides others with technical services including protection against certain cyberattacks; his annual revenue, he says, is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although small, the operation serves clients including the Daily Stormer, one of America’s most notorious online destinations for overt neo-Nazis, and 8kun, the message board at the center of the QAnon movement, whose adherents were heavily involved in the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Lim exists in a singularly odd corner of the business world. He says he’s not an extremist, just an entrepreneur with a maximalist view of free speech. “There needs to be a me, right?” he says, while eating pho at a Vietnamese restaurant near his headquarters. “Once you get to the point where you look at whether content is safe or unsafe, as soon as you do that, you’ve opened a can of worms.” At best, his apolitical framing comes across as naive; at worst, as preposterous gaslighting. In interviews with Bloomberg Businessweek early in 2020, Lim said he didn’t really know what QAnon was and had no opinion about Donald Trump.
What’s undeniable is the niche Lim is filling. His blip of a company is providing essential tech support for the kinds of violence-prone hate groups and conspiracists that tend to get banned by mainstream providers such as Amazon Web Services.
It’s almost impossible to run a real website without the support of invisible services such as web hosting, domain name registration, and protection against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which involve crashing a site by bombarding it with junk traffic. Getting banned by AWS, Cloudflare, or other infrastructure providers, as the Daily Stormer and 8kun have been, is a step beyond a ban from Facebook or Twitter. It puts the American far right on a short list that includes child pornographers and terrorist organizations such as Islamic State—groups that promote and incite violence and basically aren’t allowed to have websites. “Every time I see an article attacking social media companies—and they deserve it—I think it’s more important to go after the companies that are hosting terrorist material,” says Rita Katz, founder of SITE Intelligence Group, a nonprofit that tracks terrorist activity online. “There’s already a good recipe that was used for ISIS. Why don’t you use it on the far right?”
It’s tougher to keep a site such as the Daily Stormer offline as long as somebody like Lim is willing to support it. U.S. laws governing domestic extremism are less expansive than those focused on international terrorism, partly to protect the rights of U.S. citizens with unpopular political views. And even the big web-hosting companies have struggled to set consistent standards. While Cloudflare has refused to work with the Daily Stormer, it supports other sites peddling racism, including those for Stormfront and the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. The overlap between Republican Party officials and the belief systems that sparked the Capitol attack, which started out as a Trump rally, can make it all the tougher to draw clear lines.
Voices from across the U.S. political spectrum have registered concerns about companies setting up litmus tests to ban groups from the internet. That said, the voices Lim supports tend to come from the same general neighborhood. He sought out Andrew Anglin, who runs the Daily Stormer, to offer the neo-Nazi free tech support. He says his largest customer is 8kun, and he has a personal relationship with Ron Watkins, the site’s former administrator and one of its key leaders since its inception.
Lim argues that the real political crisis facing the U.S. is not extremist violence but erosion of the First Amendment. He says that restrictions on online speech have already brought the U.S. to the verge of communist tyranny, that “we are one foot away from 1984.” After a moment, though, he offers a sizable qualifier: “I never actually read the book, so I don’t know all the themes of the book. But I have heard the concepts, and I’ve seen some things, and I thought, ‘Whoa! That’s sketchy as f---.’ ”
There are real first amendment issues, even under the Biden Administration, in 2021. The Daily Stormer website is not one of them. We had an attempted political coup on the US Capitol with the intent of killing enough lawmakers to make Trump President to steal and election and establish a military dictatorship, and people are still wondering why I think a Second Civil War is inevitable, complete with a body count in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
That wouldn't have been possible without Nick Lim.
That's not a good thing.
The proximate cause of the enthusiasm for DeSantis is his handling of the pandemic, and the media’s attempted manhandling of him. When the Florida governor began reopening Florida last May, faster than some experts advised, he was cast as a feckless mini-Trump, the mayor from “Jaws” (complete with open, crowded beaches), the ultimate case study in “Florida Man” stupidity.
A year later, DeSantis is claiming vindication: His state’s Covid deaths per capita are slightly lower than the nation’s despite an aged and vulnerable population, his strategy of sealing off nursing homes while reopening schools for the fall looks like social and scientific wisdom, and his gubernatorial foils, the liberal governors cast as heroes by the press, have stumbled and fallen in various ways.
Meanwhile many media attacks on his governance have fizzled or boomeranged, most notably a “60 Minutes” hit piece that claimed to have uncovered corruption in the state’s use of the Publix supermarket for its vaccination efforts but produced no smoking gun, conspicuously edited out much of DeSantis’s rebuttal, and fell afoul of fact checkers. The governor’s public outrage in response was justified, but he must have been privately delighted, since there’s nothing that boosts the standing of a Republican politician quite like being attacked deceptively or unsuccessfully by the press.
So DeSantis has a good narrative for the Covid era — but his appeal as a post-Trump figure goes deeper than just the pandemic and its battles. The state he governs isn’t just a test case for Covid policy. It’s also been an object lesson in the adaptability of the Republican Party in the face of demographic trends that were supposed to spell its doom.
When the 2000 election famously came down to a statistical tie in Florida, many Democrats reasonably assumed that by 2020 they would be winning the state handily, thanks to its growing Hispanic population and generational turnover among Cuban-Americans, with an anti-Castro and right-wing older generation giving way to a more liberal younger one. But instead Florida’s Democrats keep falling short of power, and the Republicans keep finding new ways to win, culminating in 2020, when the Trump-led G.O.P. made dramatic inroads with Hispanics in Miami-Dade County and took the state with relative ease.
DeSantis’s career has been a distillation of this Florida-Republican adaptability. Born in Jacksonville, he went from being a double-Ivy Leaguer (Yale and Harvard Law) to a Tea Party congressman to a zealous Trump defender who won the president’s endorsement for his gubernatorial campaign. A steady march rightward, it would seem — except that after winning an extremely narrow victory over Andrew Gillum in 2018, DeSantis then swung back to the center, with educational and environmental initiatives and African-American outreach that earned him 60 percent approval ratings in his first year in office.
Combine that moderate swing with the combative persona DeSantis has developed during the pandemic, and you can see a model for post-Trump Republicanism that might — might — be able to hold the party’s base while broadening the G.O.P.’s appeal. You can think of it as a series of careful two-steps. Raise teacher’s salaries while denouncing critical race theory and left-wing indoctrination. Spend money on conservation and climate change mitigation through a program that carefully doesn’t mention climate change itself. Choose a Latina running mate while backing E-Verify laws. Welcome conflict with the press, but try to make sure you’re on favorable ground.
This is not exactly the kind of Republicanism that the party’s donor class wanted back in 2012: DeSantis is to their right on immigration and social issues, and arguably to their left on spending. But the trauma of Trumpism has taught the G.O.P. elite that some compromise with base politics is inevitable, and right now DeSantis seems like the safest version of that compromise — Trump-y when necessary, but not Trump-y all the time.