Blame game in full swing after Dutch viral party riots

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When Dutch high school student Merthe Weusthuis planned a small gathering with friends to mark her 16th birthday, she had no idea it would turn into a riot-filled night with thousands of sensation seekers descending on her small Dutch hometown of Haren. But one forgotten click meant her Facebook invitation went viral and now editors, journalists, police and public officials are asking who is to blame—and who is going to pick up the after-party damage tab?

By Lauren Comiteau and Rim Lucassen

After Weusthuis neglected to mark her party invitation as “private,” it went viral, with some 30,000 people saying they would “attend” what became known as Project X Haren, named after an American film with a similar theme.

Police estimate that some 3,000 youngsters actually made the trip last Friday night to the upscale town of 18,000 inhabitants near the northern city of Groningen, where 500 riot police were waiting for them.

“Miserable and frightening”
In a night that saw cars burned and windows smashed, the numbers aren’t pretty: some 35 arrests, 30 people reportedly treated in the hospital, and damages that insurers are estimating could be in the millions. Even the local Albert Heijn supermarket wasn’t spared.

"I went because a friend of mine said it would be fun…we understood something would be organised,” said attendee and University of Groningen student Benjamin de Bruijn. But after staying for only half an hour, de Bruijn realised nothing was organised at all and left the scene he called “miserable and frightening, not really a success.”

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In the aftermath of the Haren affair—indeed, even in the lead-up--there’s been a lot of finger pointing about who is to blame for the out-of-control event. Many observers blame the social media sites where the party originated, not only Facebook, but the re-tweets on Twitter and even promotional videos on YouTube.

Blame the messenger
The Consumer Affairs Minister of Germany—a country that has had at least two of its own viral parties—says Facebook should change its privacy settings to avoid private invitations becoming public. “What has to happen before Facebook takes action?’ asked Minister Ilse Aigne. Facebook Netherlands, meanwhile, says while it regrets the trouble in Haren, it is not responsible, and the company maintains its privacy settings are not difficult to use.

On the website of the Dutch media trade magazine Villamedia, editors and academics also weighed in on the debate, with media sociologist Peter Vasterman of the University of Amsterdam saying traditional media’s coverage of the event turned it into something much bigger than social media could have done alone. "Traditional media make an issue really important," said Vasterman of the constant pre-party coverage.

But the chief editor of Dutch broadcaster NOS said he was just doing his job. "It's news that a girl makes a mistake on social media and then a village is in fear,” said Marcel Gelauff. “I cannot ignore that."

Haren’s mayor Rob Bats has called for an investigation into the role of both social and traditional media in the Haren affair. “What should we tolerate from the media?” he asked.

Dutch Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten, meanwhile, has called the riots “completely unacceptable” and says those who caused the damage should foot the bill.

Double-edged social media
But officials investigating Friday night’s disturbances are using the same social media they blame for the unrest to help them solve it. Police are combing videos and photos from the night in an attempt to track down the troublemakers. A call for the public to upload riot images on the national police’s website has led to four gigabytes of footage so far.

In addition to other public videos of the disturbances that are being used to help identify perpetrators, authorities say they can trace potential witnesses via social media. “We constantly monitor Twitter,” said a Groningen police spokesman.

Facebook, too, is being used by officials to help identity those involved. And in perhaps an even greater irony, the website that spawned Project X Haren may also offer one of the most practical solutions to the town’s immediate problems: according to broadcaster NOS, some 15,000 people have “liked” a Facebook appeal for people to go to Haren to help clean up the mess.