LOS ANGELES - While the flames from the Palisades fire were spreading, so was a social media photo of a potential arson suspect. The image of the man, described as a transient well known to police and fire departments, was posted on the popular "Citizen app." He was described as the "arson suspect sought" with comments like "let's hunt this guy down," and the app even offered a reward of $30,000 leading to his arrest.
The photo was viewed more than a million times and as it turns out, it was the wrong guy.
When Brentwood resident Michelle Katz saw it, she shared it in the "Brentwood Los Angeles Residents" Facebook group — and she wasn't the only one spreading the misinformation.
Citizen app shares photo wrongfully accusing man of starting wildfire.
‘’People post about all sorts of things on Facebook or NextDoor, whether they lose a dog or a cat, and it seems to work," Katz said. "So why not find someone who's trying to destroy the neighborhood?"
Just one problem… authorities say the man in the now-viral image didn’t start the fire, though he was questioned by police and released.
A Citizen app spokesperson told FOX 11, "Once we realized this error, we immediately retracted the photo and reward offer. We are actively working to improve our internal processes."
"Our rush to be the first one — results in some real person, ruining their life, having a crisis because they've been falsely accused," said USC communications professor Karen North.
North described this instance as an example of "digital vigilantism."
"Social media is a double-edged sword... the problem is that what’s right about it, that it allows all to connect with each other and respond to each other in real-time to things both personal and global also allows us to respond incorrectly," she explained.
The threat of a fire is so emotional and so frightening it's understandable that people want to do what they can to catch a suspect, but accuracy is everything.
Katz said she feels bad, but, "It is sad for sure… but look that Getty fire — that was started was started at a homeless encampment. So homeless are definitely an issue."
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced on Monday afternoon that the person suspected of starting the fire in the Pacific Palisades was arrested over the weekend. The suspect, whose name has not been released, continues to recover at a local hospital from smoke inhalation as fire crews on Monday entered the third day of the firefight.