Last week, Peter Weinberg spent a night alone in his Bethesda, Maryland, home refreshing Twitter and “watching helplessly as people tried to destroy his life.” The 49-year-old finance marketing executive had earlier in the day been misidentified as the aggressive cyclist who was caught on video assaulting kids on a bike trail as they posted flyers in support of George Floyd.
Weinberg’s experience is not unfamiliar. Though eager web detectives sometimes get it right (see: Amy Cooper), Weinberg is just the latest person to be ensnared by internet sleuths who rush to identify a villain — and sometimes create a new victim in the process. Here, six other times it’s happened.
The Boston Marathon bombing
Perhaps the most infamous case of web detectives getting it wrong came in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, when 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi was identified as one of the perpetrators. The Brown University student had gone missing a month before the bombing, prompting his family to set up a Facebook page called “Help Us Find Sunil.” Three days after the bombing, when the FBI released grainy surveillance photos of the men they believed to be involved, a Redditor slapped together a photo from that Facebook page and a shot of Suspect No. 2, who would later be identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It didn’t take long for the false story to ricochet around the internet.
“What started off as people saying ‘This image and your brother look the same,’ became ‘This image is your brother,’ became ‘How are you providing a cover for your brother to do this?’” Tripathi’s sister said in a documentary produced a couple years later. A day after the FBI photos were released, Tsarnaev was arrested. And four days after that, Tripathi’s body was found in the Providence River. He is believed to have killed himself, likely well before the marathon even took place.
2017 Westminster attack
Within hours of an attack outside of British Parliament in March 2017, Abu Izzadeen was misidentified as the man who drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians and then stabbed a police officer. The rumor of his involvement in the attack quickly spread from social media, where Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a tweet identifying Izzadeen as the attacker, to TV, where Channel 4 News and The Independent ran with the claim. There was one key problem with this story: Izzadeen was in jail at the time.
Riverside, California, fight
After a 29-year-old man died following his attempt to break up a fight outside a restaurant in California, local police released surveillance footage of two suspects. Neither was Tyler Dancy-Washington, despite posts from online detectives claiming otherwise. Riverside police publicly cleared the 21-year-old and admonished his accusers. “We appreciate our community doing their own detective work, but we’d appreciate them, instead of telling everyone about the detective work they did … tell the detective working on the case,” Riverside police officer Ryan Railsback said.
Charlottesville car attack
After Alex Fields Jr. drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterprotesters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville three years ago, right-wing websites quickly tried to cast blame on someone else. The now-shuttered GotNews.com was the first to run with the story identifying Joel Vangheluwe as the driver, referring to him as an “Anti-Trump, Open Borders Druggie.” CNN revealed how the detectives arrived at their erroneous conclusion:
The sleuthing performed by these activists was not very complex. Images from the scene of the deadly attack had captured the vehicle and its license plate number. GotNews said in its story, which carried no byline, that it then ran a license plate search which returned a registration result for Jerome Vangheluwe.
“A Facebook crawl of his relatives reveals the car was in the possession of his son, Joel,” the GotNews story said, seemingly in reference to one 2011 post in which Joel had taken a photo of the vehicle and said it would be his when he turned 16.
While Vangheluwe once owned the car, he sold it years before the attack. In 2018, Joel Vangheluwe sued GotNews and several other websites, and, in September of that year, the site shut down.
Michael Brown shooting
It took almost a week for police in Ferguson, Missouri, to identify the officer who shot Michael Brown in the summer of 2014. In the meantime, Anonymous went to work. Days before Darren Wilson was named as Brown’s killer, the loose-knit hacker collective said Bryan Willman was the officer in question. But Willman was a Missouri police dispatcher, not an officer, and the evidence Anonymous used to identify him was incredibly thin.
The group also released an address said to belong to Willman. It was his dad’s ex-girlfriend’s house. “I guess I’m going to have to sleep with my gun and put cameras on the house,” the woman told one reporter. “Now I have to defend myself, and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
As for Willman, he locked himself in his house for six days after fielding death threats and only came out after Wilson’s name was well known.
Sandy Hook massacre
Sometimes it’s not just individuals or sketchy news sites that make major identification mistakes. When Adam Lanza killed more than two dozen people at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012, he was carrying his brother’s ID, which led to a few hours of confusion in which many media outlets reported that Ryan Lanza was the shooter. Some even shared his Facebook page, resulting in thousands of shares and death threats. “Everyone shut the f*** up it wasn’t me,” he wrote on his page. “I’m on the bus home now it wasn’t me. IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME.”
2015 Bangkok bombing
A massive explosion at a Hindu shrine in Bangkok killed more than two dozen people and injured over 120 in the summer of 2015. Authorities quickly released images from surveillance cameras, asking the public for help finding a man who left behind a backpack prior to the explosion. Sunny Burns, an Australian actor living in the Thai capital, was quickly misidentified as the suspect. (Multiple others were eventually arrested in connection with the bombing.)
Burns was shocked at the allegation. He met with Thai police and posted a selfie on Instagram, along with his forgiveness of people “who spread those horrible rumours about me.” On Facebook, he was slightly less charitable to those who mistook him for the bomber, writing, “The photo of the terrorist looks nothing like me. I would never wear those clothing — I’m a fashion blogger.”