A version of this article originally appeared on Motherboard Germany.
There's screaming everywhere. Policemen rush in from the left, as a guy dressed in a pair of shorts and a hoodie gesticulates in their path; hundreds of people stand on the periphery, glass bottles flying in protest. Suddenly, smoke appears from out of nowhere, and one of the officers hits the ground. The violent scene depicted in this short video was one of many from the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, this past weekend.
Over the weekend, one of the people featured in the video became the subject of a social media witch hunt. An online mob of self-proclaimed vigilantes hunted down the man in shorts from the video and wrongly accused him of being the person who threw a firecracker that "deprived [the policeman] of his eyesight", a widely shared Facebook post reads. Not even a swift statement of correction from the Hamburg Police could stop the false report from going viral.
An unblurred photo of the man was posted and circulated by the right-wing Facebook group "Bürgerproteste Hannover" (which translates to "Civilian's Protest Hannover") on Saturday night, and spread rapidly thereafter. The call for users to "share [the photo] until this pig is caught" went viral—it was shared by over 100,000 people within a few hours, although the group only consisted of about 3,500 members at the time of publication.
As fact checking website Faktenfinder pointed out, Hamburg police unfortunately contributed to the confusion with a tweet from July 8, claiming one policeman's eyes had been injured by firecracker. This tweet was later refuted by Hamburg police, and none of the information from the now-deleted Facebook post was true: The man in the photo didn't harm the Hamburg policeman with a firecracker, and the official who was attacked didn't go blind—instead, he was treated for noise damage, the Hamburg Police clarified on Twitter.
The tabloid Bild, which is Germany's largest newspaper by circulation, added fuel to the fire by publishing an unblurred photo of the protester and giving legitimacy to an online witch hunt.
Right-wing Facebook users made up a fake, five-figure bounty for identifying the man in the video and also said there was an official manhunt that actually didn't exist.
On the evening of July 8, Hamburg police tried to calm tensions on Twitter, but it was too late:
Translation: "IMPORTANT! The man shown here is NOT a suspect! Please call off the online manhunt for him!"
On Sunday night, Bild finally admitted on Twitter that the man in question was not a suspect "according to Hamburg police" and quietly updated its article without posting a correction note.
"It'll be difficult to rein this in again," tweeted Karolin Schwarz, founder of Hoaxmap, a German website dedicated to debunking hoaxes. And she's probably right: The Hamburg police force's statement and photo aren't likely to go viral on Twitter, and won't spread in the same way that Bürgerproteste Hannover's original post did. The case shows just how fatal the combination of rash, reactionary social media use and an emotionally charged atmosphere can be. Within mere hours, the combination turned an innocent man into a violent offender being tracked down by a virtual mob.
Bürgerproteste Hannover's video was finally deleted after being shared hundreds of thousands of times. If you want to get an idea of the sorts of inhumane fantasies that get whipped up thanks to senseless witch hunts like this one, you don't have to dig too far. A visit to the Facebook page "Pegida BW - Bodensee," where the video was reuploaded on July 8, shows a series of calls for murder, violence, use of firearms, and a slew of other serious crimes. The right-wing organization interprets the Hamburg police force statement as a conspiracy meant to protect left-wing violence and imaginary "pressure from above."
Even a local branch of a large police union, the DPoIG of Königsbrunn, fueled the mob's efforts: "WANTED: This is the 'protester' who wanted to bomb our colleague with a firecracker!"
The creator of the hoax is highly satisfied with his social media bomb: "This is and will be an incentive to all of us!"
Bürgerproteste Hannover is entirely pleased with its efforts, claiming that a mention on Faktenfinder, a German analog to Snopes, legitimized the group. The group also believes it's perfectly acceptable that its entirely false message got over 100,000 shares in one day: "This is and will be incentive for all of us!" concludes another Facebook post by the group.
There's a role for the public in investigations—usually, they should participate if the police specifically ask for help. But spreading social media rumors, accusing people of crimes with no evidence, and starting online vigilante mobs can quickly create a dynamic that could potentially put innocent people in harm's way.
Another particularly dramatic example of this happened in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings: Within a day, countless Reddit users had posted reports about the name and address of one of the alleged attackers. Finally, a mob of onlookers and cameramen from local media outlets gathered on the doorstep of a man who turned out to be completely innocent—and who was also found dead shortly thereafter.
Whether there's a link between Reddit's investigation and that man's death is unclear, but one thing is certain: Information on the internet spreads so quickly that it's impossible to predict when an anonymous post will put someone in real-life danger.