Dating Websites and Furry Forums: The Volunteer Army of Online Investigators Who Helped the FBI Track Down January 6 Perpetrators

Dating Websites and Furry Forums The Volunteer Army of Online scaled | ltc-a

Josh had spent countless hours over the past two years working on this new hobby he found both addicting and rewarding, even if his “unbelievably patient wife” found it somewhat mystifying. “Dinner table conversations sounded a little more unusual at our house for sure,” Josh said. “Screennames and hashtags and references to specific J6 events.” His wife heard all about Josh’s fellow Sedition Hunters, many of whom became close friends, even if they mostly stuck to screennames.

Those new friends could still surprise him. Just a few months earlier, he’d learned that one of those friends he’d worked with closely — a sleuth who played a critical role in the community — had voted for Donald Trump. Twice. That came as a shock to Josh, who remembers the moment as well as he remembers where he was on Sept. 11, or on the day Michael Jackson died. “It was less of a record scratch moment and more of a record getting blown up by a tomahawk missile moment,” he said.

That’s part of what kept him at it, on top of the comradery and the knowledge that he was helping protect democracy and get justice for those affected by the attack: There was always a new discovery to make, another piece of the puzzle to find. Pull one string, and suddenly the answer to another question you had months ago just falls out of the sky. Maybe a newly unearthed video you discovered pans past a rioter at juuust the right moment, and suddenly you’ve got a perfect face shot of a masked-up assailant who took a sip of water at the wrong time. Maybe you’re trying to debunk yet another conspiracy theory from some nutty far-right website (Nope, that guy’s not antifa either!), and you stumble upon a previously undocumented assault on a member of the U.S. Capitol Police, who weren’t wearing body cameras. It was dopamine hit after dopamine hit after dopamine hit.

“It’s a thrill and feeling of fulfillment that is unmatched by anything else I’ve ever done,” Josh said.

More than two years into the sprawling investigation, new identifications weren’t stopping. Josh primarily focused on archiving videos and photos from Jan. 6, creating backups of open-source materials he found online and making them available to other researchers in a permanent database. “Finding needles in haystacks online,” he said, “that’s what I’m really good at.” But on this day, he took a swing at making an ID.

After running a rioter’s photo through a facial recognition site — and then combing through what he described as “an avalanche of dicks” upon discovering images of the suspect on numerous explicit websites — he was able to identify a former gay porn actor who appeared to assault a police officer. That wasn’t even the first time the sleuths found a suspect thanks to a rioter’s previous work in pornography.

“The things I do for this country,” Josh jokingly messaged me when he got a match. “The number of dicks I’ve had to see in the name of preserving our democracy, someone should give me a goddamn medal.”

He shared his latest finding with his small crew of sleuth friends from across the country, laying out yet another identification that would eventually make its way to the FBI.

“WTF am I unlocking my computer to?” wrote the Trump-voting sleuth after Josh dropped a link to erotic photos in the group chat.

“patriotism bitch,” Josh replied.

Since a mob of Donald Trump supporters whipped up by his lies about the 2020 election stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, I’ve immersed myself in the communities of online sleuths who are driving the FBI investigation. I learned the names of hundreds of Jan. 6 participants before their arrests, including the identities of over 100 individuals whose images are currently featured on the FBI’s Capitol Violence page, but who still haven’t been charged.

There was a funeral home owner who’d sprayed cops with a wasp and hornet spray. A celebrity photo collector who’d had his photo taken with Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Kim Kardashian. An ex-NFL player. A former race car driver. A neurosurgeon. A stand-up comic named Kevin Downey Jr., who’d been on “America’s Got Talent” a decade earlier. A Trump enthusiast who’d flashed a gun at the Capitol and then fatally stabbed a 19-year-old at a park a few months later. Yet another male model, yet another corrections officer, yet another police officer, yet another real estate agent. A fan of anthropomorphized animals, seen on the Senate floor on Jan. 6, who was identified because a sleuth did a deep dive into the world of furries and found the man’s name (and his pseudonym, or “fursona”) because the man hosted a furry Thanksgiving party at his “den.” A guy who’d previously been arrested for playing a musical instrument naked in public, and a guy who’d since been arrested for walking around his neighborhood without pants. A man associated with the Proud Boys who’d been at the Capitol with his son and was subsequently arrested — with the help of DNA — for the decades-old murder of a 17-year-old girl.