On Wednesday, January 6th, 2021 the US Capitol Building was stormed by a large, violent mob of angry people. Social media users made quick attempts at identifying these individuals as imagery, memes, and screenshots poured into the open web. The same collection of images was picked up by opposing factions, and contextualized through editing to present differing information.
An image of two men from the Capitol was edited and contextualized in two differing ways. The image was initially paired with a screenshot of two men from www.phillyantifa.org, and circulated under the context that they were not Trump supporters, but members of the resistance group “Antifa.”
However, a differing stance was offered by a different edit. This version claims that the individual is a white supremacist, founder of the Maryland Skinheads, and uses his hand tattoo as verification rather than just his face.
These opposing edits are both user-generated and contain unverified speculation. They both make compelling visual arguments for the identity of the individual while providing no conclusive proof or evidence for the claim. These photos are subject to False Context, which First Draft News defines as “content that is genuine but has been reframed in dangerous ways.” Out of context screenshots spread unverified narratives easily, as they can be generated by anyone, are usually sent to you by a friend, and are separated from the original source.
Speculation regarding the identity of the now-infamous “horned helmet” protestor was also prevalent. A widely shared screenshot initially claimed that he was spotted at a Black Lives Matter rally, as part of the protestors there.
However, the uncropped version of the image and subsequent screenshots from his Facebook profile identified him as an actor and “longtime QAnon supporter” from Arizona. The photo and context were refuted by @brettlewis who initially snapped the photo.
As screenshots and other memetic imagery spread from device to device, they are often edited, and their quality degraded. Personal information that is edited out for privacy purposes can often be revealed by finding other versions of the image. (1, 2) When the original file cannot be easily be shared between devices, new versions will be created — like displaying the photo on your laptop, taking a photo of the screen with your smartphone, and then taking a screenshot of that photo. (3) Below, a meme created as early as 2017 (Reuters) circulated widely during the riots alongside claims that Antifa was infiltrating the crowd at the Capitol.
A screenshot of a Facebook post from someone claiming to be on the front lines at the Capitol was shared on Twitter. However, because no identifiable names, locations, or metadata are attached, no primary source can be easily found. A screenshot of a tweet made its way to Tiktok, Parler, YouTube and Facebook, and was subsequently refuted as sarcastic by the original author.
In conclusion, out of context screenshots are incredibly hard to verify. When information is sent to you by a friend, or consumed in a group you’re already familiar with, you’re more likely to believe it. Be sure to follow verified sources, and don’t be afraid to fact-check your feed.