The January 6 uprising showed that performance crime is becoming increasingly popular

Filming yourself committing a crime may seem like an innocent act of self-incrimination, but it’s becoming increasingly popular. Take the January 6 uprising as an example.

With 874 people arrested for disorderly conduct or seditious conspiracy, many were apprehended because of videos or photos shared online. This is considered a performance crime: the performance of a criminal activity in which to film it and share it with an audience is intrinsic to the crime itself.

Hearings held by the House Select Committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol have brought to light high-level closed-door conversations that are rarely seen in the media. In this emerging context, as a long-time researcher of alternative and digital media, my study of performance crime can help us understand both the importance and inadequacies of social media newsfeeds.

Participants in performance crimes can be viewed as self-monitoring subjects, those who participate in and actually submit to digital surveillance by uploading photos and videos of their actions. The self-monitoring subjects of the Capitol Riots participated in performance crimes that I have categorized as discursive, material, and political.

A man is being charged for his activities during the Jan. 6 Capitol riots after texting a selfie to his church group.

Text performance

Discursive performance crimes were low-level actions that included textual (placards, signs, graffiti), visual (costumes, hats, T-shirts, tattoos), and auditory (slogans, shouting) performances in four subcategories:

  1. Shaman – based on the QAnon Shaman – which are performances based on adopting conspiracy theories.

  2. Sloganeers – which included the use of slogans like “Hang Mike Pence” and “#StopTheSteal” – based on violence and misinformation.

  3. Historical re-enactors — who dressed up as historical or fictional figures, like George Washington, Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam and Captain America — representing nostalgia for a mythological white supremacist American past referenced in Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.

  4. Republican leaders – calls to arms espousing violence and aggression for Jan. 6, like Trump’s “fight like hell”; the “people’s army” of the current representative of Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene; the “trial by combat” of Rudy Giuliani; and “all hell is going to break loose” by Steve Bannon.

Read more: Far-right extremists continue to co-opt Norse symbolism – here’s why

Supporters loyal to Donald Trump attend a rally near the White House on January 6, 2021 in Washington.
(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Many of these posts expressed specific ideologies, including a Deep State conspiracy, misinformation regarding the allegedly stolen election, white supremacy, xenophobia, and racism. Ideological expression also took place without the commission of a crime, and we know that speech is not a crime.

Material offenses

Material performance crimes were uncoordinated, non-violent, non-instrumental, and medium-level actions in three subcategories:

  1. Occupants – occupied offices, ate, read newspapers, raised their feet, wrote threatening messages.

  2. Climbers – moved vertically through architectures using parkour tactics, often with police or military training.

  3. Thieves ransacked the Capitol, stole lecterns, signs, laptops and other “trophies”.

These performance crimes gave little or no strategic advantage, but gained fame (or infamy) online by posting on social media – messages later used as criminal evidence. The material actions served to support, intentionally or not, the political insurgents.

people carrying a Trump flag climb the walls of the capital
Rioters climb the west wall of the US Capitol in Washington on January 6.
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Political offenses

Political performance crimes consisted of coordinated high-level actions with political objectives such as capturing and harming legislators and preventing the peaceful transition of power, in two subcategories:

  1. Street fighters – allegedly led by the ethno-nationalist white supremacist gang the Proud Boys, who led the charge against barricades, smashed windows in the Capitol and fought with police.

  2. Insurgents – allegedly led by the Oath Keepers militia. They were equipped with body armor, military pants, camouflage, helmets, body armor and backpacks, and communicated via walkie-talkie radios and the Zello walkie-talkie app. They intentionally moved in formations of military stacks.

Read more: The Proud Boys disbanded over a year ago, but far-right extremism still exists in Canada

Political motives

Crossover between types takes place – a self-monitoring subject can carry a sign, occupy a desk, and steal its contents. However, not all performance crimes were portrayed equally in the media. Rather, increasing levels of action intensity were most often correlated with decreasing levels of self-monitoring – the more physically intense an action was, the less likely they were to film themselves engaging in it .

The more political an individual’s goals were, the less likely they were to broadcast their actions live. Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, for example, are accused of seditious conspiracy, but have rarely emerged as subjects of self-policing.

From a pragmatic point of view, their hands were too full to go live as they tugged at barricades, moved in stacks, smashed windows and more. But they also shrewdly chose not to film illegal actions, often exempting themselves from the performance crime tag.

a chart showing how, as the action level increases, the probability of filming decreases
As the insurgents’ level of action increased, their use of digital media decreased.
(Sandra Jeppesen), Author provided

Incomplete and inaccurate

The filming and uploading of performance crimes during the Capitol Riots is just one piece of the media puzzle. The actions were also captured from multiple angles by action cameras like the GoPros, thanks to streaming reverse camera selfies, surveillance cameras and police-worn cameras during presumably the crime performance of most live mass broadcast in US history.

Another piece of the news puzzle is being debated in the hearings. Did Donald Trump – a high-profile self-policing topic – incite violence? Did his words and actions contribute to a performance crime at the highest level?

Real-time information on social media, while promoting performance crimes, cannot be used to convey complex news stories. Despite the amount of information posted online at an event (including by those involved in performance crimes), what we see in real time on social media is incomplete and inaccurate. The hearings, including recent testimony from White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, remind us that during a political crisis, key actions happen behind closed doors.

This makes social media coverage incomplete. Conversely, social media posts can promote misinformation and disinformation, making coverage inaccurate.

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