Fact check: False claim a vigilante shot down the Chinese spy balloon

The claim: A vigilante 'shot down the Chinese spy balloon'

A Feb. 3 Instagram post (direct link, archive link) shows a screenshot of a tweet that features a photo of a man posing with a gun next to a photo of what appears to be a crashed white balloon.

"BREAKING: A local man has SHOT DOWN the CHINESE SPY BALLOON in an EXTRAORDINARY act of vigilantism," reads the tweet.

The Instagram post was liked more than 4,000 times in four days.

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Our rating: False

A vigilante did not shoot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon. A U.S. fighter plane took down the balloon after it passed into territorial waters off the South Carolina coast. The person shown in the photo is Sam Hyde, a comedian who has been falsely linked to mass shootings and other events in recent years.

Fighter jet, not vigilante, took down Chinese balloon

A large Chinese balloon suspected of conducting surveillance drifted across a huge swath of the U.S., from Montana to the Carolinas, in early February.

A fighter jet flying at about 58,000 feet fired a single air-to-air missile and hit the balloon shortly after 2:30 p.m. EDT on Feb. 4, as previously reported by USA TODAY. At the time, the balloon was flying at about 65,000 feet and was six miles off the South Carolina coast. The entire incident was captured on video.

But that incident has nothing to do with the picture shown in this post.

The photo of the balloon in the Instagram post was taken in 2015 after a 240-foot helium-filled blimp broke loose from a U.S. military facility in Maryland. It climbed to about 16,000 feet and traveled about 150 miles in three and a half hours before deflating and coming down on its own, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The person shown in the post is Sam Hyde, a comedian who has been repeatedly – and falsely – linked to mass shootings and other events for years. In 2022, false rumors spread online that "Samuyil Hyde" was the name of a Ukrainian pilot dubbed the "Ghost of Kyiv" for single-handedly shooting down six Russian fighter jets.

The viral tweet was originally posted by a parody account. The Instagram post, however, fails to disclose the tweet's satirical origins.

It's an example of what could be called "stolen satire," where stories written as satire and presented that way originally are captured via screenshot and reposted in a way that makes them appear to be legitimate news. As a result, readers of the second-generation post are misled, as was the case here.

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USA TODAY reached out to the social media user who shared the post for comment.

PolitiFact also debunked the claim.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: No, vigilante didn't shoot down suspected spy balloon