By Hannah Rabinowitz and Tara Subramaniam, CNN
January 6 rioters are publicizing their actions at the US Capitol and pushing misinformation in an effort to gain notoriety in ways that echo former President Donald Trump.
But it has not gone well for many of them. Some rioters are finding that their words and their posts are being used against them in court — and making it harder for them to get leniency when it comes to sentencing.
“You were a pawn. You were a pawn in the game played by people who know better.” That’s what Judge Amit Mehta told an individual who stormed the Capitol on January 6. Mehta said those defendants were “told lies,” believed those lies, and now “they are the ones paying the consequences.”
Though any criminal defendant’s statements are protected by the First Amendment, they can be used to establish a person’s state of mind and could influence how a judge views their actions and their contrition.
In the January 6 cases, prosecutors have made clear that they believe any public statements or social media posts downplaying criminal conduct from January 6 should warrant a harsher sentence.
And in the eyes of some judges, a stiff punishment could deter people from continuing to push these lies.
Some rioters haven’t changed their online presences, occasionally discussing their charges in cryptic Instagram graphics — one defendant posted a Tupac Shakur lyric “Wake me when I’m free”– or alluding to politics in their Twitter, Instagram and TikTok bios with American flag emojis and tagging themselves as #J6. Others have made it their whole brand by spreading misinformation, using the opportunity to go on national television or even selling real estate or merchandise.
One defendant, Micajah Jackson from Arizona, was sentenced on Thursday to three years of probation, including three months at a halfway house, for illegally protesting at the Capitol. Judge Randolph Moss told Jackson that the sentence was, in part, because of his online posts before and after his arrest.
“I’m troubled by some of the statements that you have made,” Moss said about Jackson’s posts downplaying the riot. “None of that is true. ” Moss added he was concerned that Jackson had “internalized” such misinformation, and he emphasized how important it is for those charged with crimes related to January 6 to “accept the responsibility” for their part in what happened.
Jackson, a veteran who served in the Marine Corps, posts prolifically online, spreading rampant misinformation about vaccines, politics, the Justice Department and the war in Ukraine to his nearly 8,000 Twitter followers.
Prosecutors had previously slammed Jackson for using his criminal case to raise his online profile. But Jackson’s lawyer, Maria Jacob, said that the government was trying to “pick apart his every word to say he’s not remorseful.”
In one video cited by prosecutors last week, Jackson discussed numerous election-related conspiracies from his home state of Arizona including #SharpieGate, voting machine glitches, and the results of the Maricopa County election audit. Several of Jackson’s comments directly parrot Trump, who has himself tweeted about voting machine “glitches” and touted the results of the Arizona audit even though it confirmed Biden‘s victory.
Jackson has also repeatedly referenced his case with the Justice Department as a battle between a corrupt government and the American public with high stakes for the future. He has accused government agencies of fabricating information against him to cover up FBI corruption that is “proven and documented already.”
“That’s why they are coming after me, because I’m attacking what’s the truth and I know exactly what happened that day,” Jackson said in the online video that was posted after he pleaded guilty but before he was sentenced. “They’re not happy because I’m challenging their narrative, and the narrative is wrong,” he added.
Trump, too, has accused the FBI of investigating him for political gain.
“They knew right at the beginning that it was all a frame up, a set up,” Trump said about the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Fighting the evidence
In November, after Trump lost the election, he peddled a litany of false claims and conspiracy theories alleging he won.
Similarly, some January 6 defendants charged in higher-profile cases have taken to right-wing media to combat what they consider to be an overhyped story from the Justice Department.
Thomas Caldwell, an alleged member of the Oath Keepers, has repeatedly gone on Fox News primetime shows to vehemently deny the allegations against him. He has said his case is “good versus evil,” and claimed that the Justice Department is fabricating evidence about the riot and his involvement in bringing weapons to DC.
Caldwell and 10 other members of the Oath Keepers are charged with seditious conspiracy for allegedly organizing to disrupt Congress’ certification of the 2020 election to keep then-President Donald Trump in power. He has pleaded not guilty.
“And I can tell you, I never saw any weapons,” Caldwell told Fox’s Tucker Carlson in January, “nor did I talk to anybody who talked about bringing in heavy weapons and overthrowing the government, which is what sedition is all about. It’s just plain nuts.”
Prosecutors accuse Caldwell of helping to organize an armed quick reaction force outside DC on January 6, citing his own text and Signal messages and hotel security footage.
Self-promotion and profit
Just like the man who fundraised off of his own impeachment trial, a few rioters have learned to lean into the ultimate Trump angle: a business opportunity.
That’s the case with Jenna Ryan, a real estate agent from Texas. Ryan pleaded guilty to illegally protesting in the Capitol in August and spent two months in jail. The judge presiding over her case told Ryan that part of the reason she received jail time was because she leveraged her criminal charges to promote her personal brand. After she was sentenced, she started a Substack newsletter about going to jail. Posts include “Tips for J6 Short-Term Prisoners” and “Beauty for Ashes: What I Learned after 60 Days in Federal Prison.”
Ryan initially combatted the allegations against her, claiming that she “did nothing wrong.” During the course of her case, she participated in multiple national news interviews and tweeted about her proceedings. Then, at the time of her sentencing, she blamed a media “smear campaign” for her 60-day sentence.
She’s now directing her newfound following to support her real estate company. Her most active social media account, Twitter, is equal parts claiming she is a victim of cancel culture and advertising houses she is selling. She has more than 20,000 followers.
Because of her following, Ryan says business is booming.
“I’m able to sell houses simply because we have so many patriotic Americans that are choosing to use someone that the media is trying to cancel, and that Big Tech is trying to cancel,” Ryan said in one TikTok video, adding that attempts to cancel her are “actually backfiring” because “people are actually using me because of what happened.”
Ryan has also claimed on TikTok that she is in touch with a “major big-wig in the Hollywood area” who wants her on a reality show and that she may write a book.
“Baby you created this monster,” Ryan sang in a video response last week to someone chastising her use of TikTok. “You created it with your own comments.”
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CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.