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Capitol Rioters’ Own Words Literally Coming Back to Bite Them As Social Media Posts Influence Sentencing

Capitol Rioters’ Own Words Literally Coming Back to Bite Them As Social Media Posts Influence Sentencing

Participants in the January 6th Capitol riots are finally learning that there actually are real-life consequences for social media posts. For many of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol, the self-incriminating messages, photos, and videos that they shared before, during, and after the insurrection are certainly “influential”–but not in the cool Instagram way.

Instead, they’re influencing their own criminal sentences.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 6: Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

The Associated Press reports on several different Capitol rioters who were initially referred for probation or lighter sentences, only to receive harsher punishments once their social media posts were revealed. Many rioters 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.

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. As of Friday, more than 50 people had 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.


Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson read aloud some of Russell Peterson’s posts about the riot before she sentenced the Pennsylvania man to 30 days imprisonment. “Overall I had fun lol,” Peterson posted on Facebook. 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.”

Rioters’ statements, in person or on social media, aren’t the only consideration for prosecutors or judges. Justice Department sentencing memos say defendants also should be judged by whether they engaged in any violence or damaged property, whether they destroyed evidence, how long they spent inside the Capitol, where they went inside the building and whether they have shown sincere remorse.


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