John, an American in his 20s who has a popular YouTube channel, was reading reports of the attacks in Manchester last night when his phone rang. It was John’s friend, who was concerned for his safety. They had seen his picture online with a caption saying he was in the Manchester Arena. “He’s not picking up my call!” one tweet read. “Please help me.”
My son was in the Manchester Arena today— Zero (@GamerGateAntifa) May 22, 2017
He's not picking up my call!
Please help me pic.twitter.com/VZxkp6nVBN
Then, the emails started coming in. Friends, family, and concerned fans were emailing John, who runs a YouTube channel where he reviews fast food in suit and tie, all talking about pictures of him that they had seen on the internet. The influx of questions spurred John, who is withholding his last name out of privacy concerns, to make a YouTube video to let people know that he was, in fact, alive. He wasn’t even in the same country where the attack happened.
This isn’t the first time John has been the victim of an online prank. He says that his attire and aloof presentation style make him a frequent target for trolls, but admits this was certainly more attention than he’d ever gotten. His picture was displayed on Fox News, Yahoo, and the Daily Mail. Reuters wrote a story mentioning the tweet, which has been retweeted by celebrities like actor James Woods, and has over 18,000 retweets. Reuters and Daily Mail have both amended their articles to remove mention of the tweet involving John.
“People were legitimately believing this rumor, which was just a picture of me and nothing more, that I was actually a victim of this terrible incident,” John told The Outline.
The account that spread the hoax, @GamerGateAntifa, a Twitter account primarily dedicated to memes, seems nothing short of elated, endlessly tweeting about how much coverage the tweet got. When another user asked “if you ever lose a loved one would you like some cunt doing this to you?” @GamerGateAntifa responded “hell yeah.”
“I never expected it to grow that big.”
“It was just supposed to be a meme for the people who follow me to be honest, @GamerGateAntifa told The Outline. “I never expected it to grow that big.” When The Outline asked the person behind the account if they had any regrets after John had to field calls and emails from concerned friends, they said “Well that kinda sucks but it's not like I made him out to be a terrorist or anything, which is how this kind of trolling usually goes. But I think he understands this type of humor and is not too upset about it.”
>tfw i got ReviewBrah as a terrorism victim on Fox News and multiple sites to publish "GamerGateAntifa" pic.twitter.com/ZRhSlzNbS4— Zero (@GamerGateAntifa) May 23, 2017
John wasn’t the only person wrapped up in a Manchester attack-inspired internet hoax last night. Several accounts saw the attack as a chance to see how many likes and retweets they could get by capitalizing on people’s desire to help spread information about missing victims.
One account sent a fake tweet about his missing twin brother, and then bragged about all the retweets he was getting as his tweet exploded. “EVERYONE RETWEET THIS,” the tweet reads. “HES MY TWIN BROTHER HE WENT TO THE ARIANA GRANDE CONCERT IN #Manchester and WE CANT FIND HIM HIS PHONE ISNT RINGING.” He tagged The Ellen Show in hopes receiving more attention.
The user has now changed his Twitter username, but continued to tweet about his moment of virality. He posted a screenshot from Twitter’s analytics tool with the amount of engagement he’s gotten and has brushed off his critics. “People this is TWITTER,” he tweeted. “Y'all take social media WAY too serious..”
When The Outline attempted to ask him about his tweet, he replied “Obviously I'm not stupid blocked.”
People around the world feel compelled to try and assist in the wake of a terrorist attack, and are easily compelled by pleas for retweets that may help identify some missing person who was at the scene of the attack. There really isn’t much that Twitter, or the people whose pictures are frequently used for the basis of online hoaxes, can do to stop them from happening again.
“But the bottom line, I didn't mean any harm against [John] (hence why I used the victim angle), or didn't expect it to take off at all but it did,” @GamerGateAntifa said. “It was not my intention but it highlights the huge problem with 'breaking news' done with minimal or no research.”
“Of course I'm not gonna pretend what I did is good in any way but it's what it is.”