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Trump supporters confront U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press

Christopher J. Schneider is a professor of sociology at Brandon University.

The Vancouver Canucks lost the final match in a best-of-seven series during the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs on June 15, 2011. And in the moments just before the game was over, a riot began in Vancouver.

Ten years later, on Jan. 6, 2021, an angry mob of Trump supporters breached the Capitol building in Washington.

Each event was documented extensively on social media. The aftermath of the second riot bears striking similarities to the earlier one, which may offer some lessons for the continuing Capitol siege investigation.

In both Vancouver and in Washington, some individuals took selfies while others brazenly posed for photographs amid the chaos and destruction. Rioters smashed windows to gain access to the Capitol building; they did the same to retail establishments such as London Drugs and Hudson’s Bay in Vancouver. Police officers were taunted and assaulted during both events.

Law enforcement was woefully unprepared in each circumstance, despite weeks of public speculation about possible violence in Vancouver (harkening to a 1994 hockey riot) and weeks of planning in plain sight to storm the Capitol building.

The 2011 Vancouver riot was one of the first mass mediated criminal events to unfold simultaneously in the physical world and on social-media platforms. The public captured and then circulated a great deal of the evidence.

In total, authorities collected more than 30 terabytes of potential evidence that included almost 30,000 photos and more than 5,000 hours of video – or the equivalent of 7,500 DVDs worth of data.

While the 2011 Vancouver riot remains among the most documented in human history, the one at the Capitol is certain to eclipse it.

In fact, there were so much data that Vancouver Police Department (VPD) outsourced to a laboratory in Indiana for assistance in processing. Dozens of forensic video analysts spent more than 4,000 hours in the laboratory identifying and tagging suspects in order to organize and link materials to aid investigators in their searches of criminal conduct. The entire undertaking took months.

It is reported that the FBI has already received more than 100,000 pieces of digital evidence. The eventual compendium of social-media evidence will surely surpass Vancouver, especially given that some of the Capitol rioters livestreamed their crimes (livestreaming wasn’t yet really a thing in 2011).

Some of the accused Capitol rioters have turned themselves in. Others were outed by their friends or family. Social-media evidence has already led to 125 federal arrests.

Numerous accused rioters similarly turned themselves into authorities in the days that followed the 2011 riot in Vancouver. After seeing incriminating materials on social media, some parents even turned in their own children to the VPD. Other rioters remained on the lam, some even bragging on social media about their involvement in the riots.

The abundance of evidence circulating on social media contributed to the widespread belief that there will be expedient justice against the Capitol rioters. There was a similar expectation in Canada after the 2011 Vancouver riot. It ultimately took years. The first charges were laid at the end of November, 2011, and the last sentences were reportedly handed down to rioters in February, 2016, just months shy of the event’s fifth-year anniversary.

There will likely be disappointment. This is only the beginning of the investigation into the Capitol siege, and the need to evaluate the deluge of information is a big part of what will take time, leading us to our second key realization: Evidence on social media might not always be what it seems.

In Vancouver, Brock Anton wrote on his Facebook profile: Punched a “pig in the head [and] knocked him to the ground […] burnt some smart cars, burnt some cop cars, I’m on the news… One word… History.”

Accused Capitol rioter Cody Connell wrote in a public exchange on Facebook: “I have more videos of us breaching the Capitol but not gonna post them,” later writing, “we stormed the cops [and] pushed the cops against the wall […] that’s when we went to the doors of the Capitol building and breached it.”

Public outrage about descriptions of this kind of behaviour is understandable. In direct response to Mr. Anton’s Facebook post, social-media users called for the reinstatement of the death penalty in Canada and the expansion of police powers, as I detail in my book Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media. While Mr. Anton was at the riot, he was never charged for assaulting police or lighting cars on fire because it turned out that he made it all up. The public was informed of Mr. Anton’s lies more than a year after his claims. We know this because of the lengthy investigation of the aforementioned 30 terabytes of data gathered by investigators.

Perhaps Mr. Connell and others did the things they boasted about on social media. Perhaps not. Either way it will take time to get the complete picture. Social-media materials, while important, are just pieces of a larger puzzle that investigators must put together when building a case against the accused.

After the 2011 riot in Vancouver, there was speculation about staged photos (to see one of the most discussed, Google “Vancouver kissing couple”) and digitally altered materials. While social media factored heavily into the Vancouver riot investigation – and has thus far after the Capitol siege – the sheer volume of online materials means each image, video, etc., must be carefully reviewed and confirmed to be authentic.

What about those videos you watched of the Capitol siege? The technology is now advanced to the point that most anyone with a computer and certain software can make something look like what it is not (think deepfakes). In my research of the 2011 Vancouver riot, which involved reviewing thousands of social-media posts, I came across materials that appeared Photoshopped, which isn’t all that hard to do as evidenced by the recent Bernie Sanders viral meme. People could feasibly Photoshop their ex-spouses or enemies into the Capitol. Or they may even place themselves there to attract attention on social media, perhaps gaining status among other Republican extremists. Mr. Anton got a lot of attention; it may have been stupid, but criminal it was not.

Careful attention to every last detail is crucial to ensure investigators bring those responsible for the siege on the U.S. Capitol to justice. It will take time.

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