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Online Behavior, Real-Life Consequences: The Unfolding Of A Social Media Scandal

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, a photo made its way around the Internet. It showed a man standing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center in New York City. His face is expressionless, unsmiling. He's wearing a knitted black cap, sunglasses and an unzipped parka. Behind him, there's a deep blue sky and views of Manhattan and the Hudson River. But there's something else behind him too — a plane. It's headed straight toward the tower. Rumor had it that the man died that day and that his camera was later pulled from the rubble.

It's an amazing shot and an amazing story, and it's totally false.

The man is Peter Guzli. The famous picture was snapped several years before the terrorist attacks.

After the attacks, Guzli edited the photo and added in the plane. The Hungarian man then emailed the image to a few friends "as a joke." Those friends shared the image with their friends, and their friends shared it with more friends, and soon, the photo was everywhere.

Ten years after the attacks, Peter Guzli publicly apologized. He said he was ashamed and sorry and hadn't considered the consequences. He said that he "never thought it would go out of my small circle of friends."

That should have been the end of it. But it wasn't. The image turned Peter Guzli into a meme star.

On social media today, he's known as the "tourist guy," or sometimes as the "tourist of death." Strangers have Photoshopped this same image of an expressionless Peter Guzli, with his parka, knit cap and sunglasses, into all kinds of famous scenes, where something terrible has just happened, or is about to happen.

Whether he wants this role today is not up to Peter Guzli anymore. Now, the Internet owns the tourist of death. It does what it wants with the image.

Not long ago, a teenager from Pennsylvania also did something stupid on social media. Just like Peter Guzli, his actions spiraled out of his control and changed his life forever.

This week on Hidden Brain,we describe what this young man did, and consider what his story says about a fault line that runs through our lives: On social media, we're encouraged to be quick, clever, edgy. The funny videos and amusing banter we engage in seem trivial. But they are not. A larger world is watching. It's usually silent, but every now and then, something we say or do can ignite a firestorm. And then, nothing can undo the damage.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel, and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain , and listen for Hidden Brain stories on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.