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Monitoring And Debunking COVID-19 Panic: The “Haarlem Aldi” Hoax

March 13, 2020

By Charlotte Godart and Chantal Verkroost

Panicked responses to COVID-19 have triggered strange, yet predictable behavior from people all around the world as they attempt to protect themselves and their families. Some of the most common images and videos circulating on the internet show emptied grocery stores, huge lines at checkout counters, and by now the all-too-familiar disappearing toilet paper. In an attempt to stock up before quarantining, people around the world are flooding their grocery stores and taking whatever it is that they deem necessary for survival.

However, this practice is actively being dissuaded by governments whose representatives are repeating that there is and will be enough stock in grocery stores throughout this crisis. By hoarding items, people are really keeping others from being able to purchase them as needed (those who are actually running low on toilet paper at home might be getting worried right about now!). 

This morning, Chantal Verkroost, a Bellingcat staffer working in the Netherlands, received a WhatsApp message from a friend, sharing a video. The friend claimed that the video was taken in Haarlem, a city neighboring Amsterdam. In it, there was a swarm of people outside an Aldi, a grocery store chain, fighting to enter the store all at once. Presumably, this video was supposed to show the huge numbers of people rushing to purchase items due to COVID-19, as in so many other videos we have seen in recent days. 

However, the numbers in this particular video are extreme. A video like this could incite mass panic — as people may then think that they need to run to their local store immediately. 

Knowing how relatively calm the situation has been here in the Netherlands (especially in Haarlem, where there is one reported case), we at Bellingcat felt that the video was likely fake — and set out to prove it.

Debunking The Claims

We began with determining some identifying features in the video that might immediately prove our suspicions. By looking closely, we determined that there was German writing on the advertisement in the window and that it was next to another store front, with the letters “F.B.I” clearly visible. 

The German writing led us to believe that the store was in Germany, not in the Netherlands. Assuming this, we started searching for “F.B.I” and the German word for store, “laden”. 

In what was a much needed humorous turn of events, this led us to results about Osama bin Laden and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not anything close to what we had been hoping for. Ah, the joys of internet searches.

Following this hilarious outcome, we changed laden for another German word for store, “geschäft”, and repeated our search. The results included some inevitable images related to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but after scrolling down a bit, we recognized the logo from the video and found the website for a store called Friseure Bringen Ideen. 

This store, a German hairdresser chain, has just six locations across Germany. Conveniently, their website also showed pictures of all of these locations. When looking at the six images of the locations, three clearly didn’t match the look of the store in the video and were dismissed immediately. For the other three, we searched for photos on Google Maps, as well as Aldi stores in the same location. 

We looked at images of the Aldi in Kiel and immediately noticed matching identifying features. These included its positioning, the “F.B.I.” sign, the window panes, and the glass doors with the metal around them. Below, you can see a comparison of the images from Google Maps and the video.

However, the “F.B.I.” on this photo, dated from October 2019, differed from the logo in the video, suggesting that either the storefront had changed in the last five months, or that the video was shot some time earlier. Determining this could help us figure out whether any of this is at all related to COVID-19. 

With that in mind, we began looking at other changes, including the change in the Aldi logo. In the October 2019 picture, the Aldi logo has lost the word “markt”, while in an earlier photo from February 2018, and in the video, the word “markt” is still there.

Now we were certain that the video was not taken in Haarlem and we were also pretty convinced that the video was taken at least a year ago, definitely before the COVID-19 panic struck. 

Even after debunking the main claims associated with the video, we wanted to determine when the event depicted in it actually took place and how many people this viral claim had reached.

How Far Had This Gone? Thinking Like A Hoaxer Would

Chantal received this video in an WhatsApp chat, but we wanted to know how many other people had been fed the same claim about this event having taken place in Haarlem. Had this gone viral before it landed in Chantal’s WhatsApp?

In order to do this, we started to think like a hoaxer would — how would someone present this video online trying to tell people that it was pandemic panic? 

We searched Twitter through TweetDeck, filtering for tweets that contained videos, and searching for “aldi AND corona”. Eventually, we came across this tweet that shared the exact same video, except for the fact that they had a TikTok logo in the corner and the TikTok username below it, “@ihanaids”.

We looked for this username on TikTok and found the video, which had gone viral:

It was posted on February 28, 2020 with over four million views, 3,000 likes, and 10,000 comments. The caption claimed that it was taken on that same date in Herthen, Germany and that the event depicted in the video was triggered by the coronavirus.

The numbers on this video were shocking, given how little we were seeing pop up about it elsewhere, such as on Twitter or Facebook. It seems to have gone viral through TikTok alone, speaking to the great power of this social media app. 

Having debunked the video and figured out more about its impact, we moved on to our final step — trying to find the original source.

Finding The Original Video

We reverse image searched a still from the video and quickly found some older videos, including one from 2016:

We had an even earlier possible date, but wanted to keep looking to see if we could find something before 2016. 

Quickly, we realized that others had also noticed that the video was fake. The tweet that had reposted the TikTok video above replied to their own tweet, admitting that it was fake news. 

Another user also claimed the tweet was fake news and linked the original Youtube video, from 2011, with the correct location that we had determined independently. In the video’s description, the uploader added that the video has nothing to do with the coronavirus, an obvious recent addition to said description.

This is the earliest version of this video that we found, dating back to 2011, when there was a special sale going on in the store and an overexcited crowd swarmed in. 

What Now? 

Many things about the COVID-19 crisis make us feel helpless. Some respond to this by rushing into grocery stores and stocking up. Others are staying home, close to their loved ones, and choosing to do what they can to maintain control over their own situation. There may be a lot that we still don’t know and it feels that we are relying on every bit of news to inform us about our fates and how our day-to-day lives may further be impacted. This fear creates an opportunity for people to capitalize on the desperate feelings of fellow human beings and spread hysteria through disinformation. 

The people TikTok seems to be aware of how their app is being used to spread panic and disinformation around this topic. Below the viral video, they placed a link entitled “Learn the facts about COVID-19” and on the page for the hashtag, #coronavirus, they have placed warnings about where to receive trusted information. However, these videos will still spread and will still have an impact. This is evidenced by the simple fact that Chantal received the video from a friend this morning. The friend had herself received it in her work group chat, with claims that the video was from today in The Netherlands. 

Throughout the coming weeks, we only expect the fake content surrounding this topic to escalate. Now, we invite you to join us in fighting the hysteria-causing disinformation and independently verifying the viral videos around you. 

If you come across a viral video that you think is fake and related to COVID-19 panic, tag us on Twitter. We will attempt to debunk the big ones as they come and invite you to do the same. 

Stay healthy and safe during these coming weeks, stay alert to information from local authorities, and maybe also fill your quarantine time by learning some digital investigation skills. 

Charlotte Godart and Chantal Verkroost

Charlotte Godart is an investigator and trainer for Bellingcat. Before working at Bellingcat, she was a researcher and team manager at the Investigations Lab within the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley, her alma mater.


Chantal is a Fundraising & Training Coordinator at Bellingcat, here to show that anyone can do Open Source Investigations the Bellingcat way.

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43 Comments

  1. bernard perry

    Please let people know that they can not make a hand sanitizer from vodka and other bits and pieces.

    Reply
    • LahDeDah

      You are all going to die.

      Because . . .
      On a long enough time line,
      Everyone’s survival rate,
      Drops to Zero.

      Everyone dies.
      Sooner or Later.

      Reply
  2. DT

    This clip was already shared as early as 29 February in a German facebook Group called “Aktuelle Such und Polizeimeldungen”. It was fortunately debunked almost immediately by one of the commentors as the 2011 YouTube clip.
    However the poster, one of the two main contributors of this Group, with a ten years old account, but just posting all kinds of horror events since one year – almost daily, continues to share negative news, including corona news.

    Those posts are neither “police Reports” nor “reports about missing persons” as the group is claiming to be about. And apparently he is was not stopped by facebook from continuing to post, although his fake post was reported.

    Spreading concerning real life news and playing the nice concerned neighbour still works very well on facebook. The Group has 9.764 members. Not that much of an outreach. But the snowball starts rolling.

    Reply
    • Teresa Liddell Shepherd

      ” And apparently he is was not stopped by facebook from continuing to post, although his fake post was reported.”

      Facebook’s standards really concern me. The harvesting of personal details for sale to analytic companies who then sell to political organisations have affected elections goes on unabated. Many games/sites don’t work unless you allow third party cookies which mine your data and that of all their friends. Similarly personality tests and posts where people are asked to share with a dozen people or you’ll go to hell or whatever. Those people are targeted as gullible and bombarded with ads smearing their rivals and bigging up/lying about the candidate. Steve Bannon, who is alt-right former editor of Breitbart, Alt-Right news, is the main protagonist, former adviser during Trump’s last election and then re the Brexit referendum and succeeded many other elections elsewhere eg India and Australia, France. He is currently focusing on Europe. Facebook obviously is failing in its duty, which has to be deliberate, although they say they have protections in place – which seem to apply only to its participants, not the protagonists.

      Reply
  3. CharlesT

    Excellent article! I would suggest proof-reading it, though. It’s riddled with grammatical errors.

    Reply
    • Lola

      They are helping people and you need to point out
      grammatical errors? Get over yourself and say “Thank you!” instead!

      Reply
      • CharlesT

        I did call it an excellent article. Admittedly, proper grammar is secondary if the content is as helpful and informative as is the case with this article. However, grammatical mistakes give the impression of sloppiness, which is something a detail oriented publication like Bellingcat should avoid. In a worst-case scenario, grammatical errors can also hinder understanding. These types of mistakes could easily be avoided by simply proof-reading the text before publishing.

        Reply
        • Mike

          Perhaps if more people supported Bellingcat financially there would be the necessary editorial resources in place to ensure the Queen’s English is flawlessly presented in every article. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to accept your generous contribution.

          Reply
  4. octavia daxon

    Im tinker Bell I know who’s doing this Wich craft they try to mess with me and they fallow me .

    Reply
  5. Kamm

    Good effort in debunking a lot of the bunk. Thanks. I don’t worry about the odd grammar or typo error as long as the “meat” of the hoax is properly debunked. Not everyone has a degree in English Lit.

    Reply
    • Pete Maclean

      I do worry. I find that fake information too often comes with grammatical errors. I would like that Bellingcat take some pains to be grammatically correct; it will help people trust it.

      Reply
      • bitter&sour

        The entire editorial team only draws attention to the Russian syntax 🙂 other errors does not matter 😉

        Reply
  6. williams

    Thank you for this well laid out article.

    Much as I understand the sentiments of the previous writers about not being too concerned about grammatical errors, they still pose a problem WRT credibility.

    Many fake sites are riddled with spelling and grammar errors which can raise suspicion in anyone who is looking for credible info about sensitive subjects such as COVID-19. For the sake of sincere credibility (which you do have as far as I am concerned) it is simply safer to make sure that no-one dismisses the valuable work you are doing.

    Please, please keep up the good work!!

    Reply
  7. Helen

    Great work. Thanks for your description of the process. In addition to debunking fake news it would be helpful to post sources of accurate news. In Australia we have ABC RN – in this day an age an invaluable news source. Take good care.

    Reply
  8. WeFartAllDay

    Everyone knows it was invented by the elite to further control the poor and stupid.

    There is no pandemic.

    Wake up and get your head out of your…

    Reply
  9. Just a Geek

    The panic aspect of this phenomenon is something called the illusion of control.

    When faced with an outside context challenge for which we are mentally unprepared, people feel a strong need to take action, any action even if it is pointless or even counter productive. It makes people feel in control of the situation and eases their anxiety. The way to respond to this kind of fear mongering is to get in early with simple to understand but concrete advice on a _course_of_action. The WHO or NHS advice for good bio-security is one example.

    Reply

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