Anti-scam sites petition against Facebook baby charity scams

An anti-scam group has written a second open letter to Facebook, asking the company to change the way it fights scams based on images of sick children. This time there's even a petition.
Written by Emil Protalinski, Contributor

Five anti-scam websites (Hoax-Slayer, That's Nonsense, The Bulldog Estate, Facecrooks, Privacy and Security Guide), and security firm Sophos have written a second Open Letter to Facebook asking for help fighting a plague on the social network referred to as "sick baby hoaxes" and "baby charity scams." You've probably seen these around: they're real photographs of sick children captioned with a false claim that Facebook will donate for every Like and/or Share of the image. After weeks of fighting this nonsense, the collective group has started a Remove The Baby Charity Scam Photos From Facebook petition:

This Petition asks Facebook to remove the 'baby charity scam' photos on its website. *Please SIGN and SHARE this petition, thank you.* This Open Letter is respectfully directed to Facebook. We the undersigned ask Facebook to: * Remove all instances of the 'baby charity scam' photos as detailed in the Open Letter linked above. * Inform its users that these images should not be shared and that it will not donate money for likes or shares of content uploaded to its platform. * Create additional options in its Report Tool to include 'Contains Material Involving Children' or similar option so that users can more accurately state the reason for reporting. Content reported using this option should be escalated to Facebook immediately for inspection.

This issue involves photographs of ill and/or disabled children in hospitals being shared virally across Facebook, often asking users to donate for the child's medical expenses and/or promising that sharing the photo will result in donations from Facebook itself. Both claims are of course false. The real victims are not, however, the users who are being tricked – it's the families of these children who learn photos of their sick relatives are being used to perpetuate the scams and hoaxes.

Last month, the five anti-scam websites wrote an open letter to Facebook asking for help fighting against a very viral type of Facebook hoax that exploits pictures of sick babies. After the issue received some media attention, Facebook responded by taking down many of the offending images. The company's message to users, however, remained the same: keep reporting the scams and we'll get to them as soon as possible.

The last time I spoke to Facebook about the issue, the company admitted it needs to do more to fight these viral scams and hoaxes. Facebook said last month it is "looking specifically at these types of violations," "how they can be more quickly and efficiently taken down," and is considering "some technical solutions that will make their removal quicker and more comprehensive (i.e. catching more instances of the same or similar images)."

Those all sound great, but unfortunately, while Facebook says it is working on the issue, the anti-scam websites tell me the situation hasn't improved; they say it has gotten worse. They estimate that for every link removed, about 22 new ones are uploaded in its place. They thus conclude that reporting these photographs until Facebook removes them is an ineffective solution. Today, there are still hundreds of these hoaxes and scams being shared. Here's an excerpt from the second open letter:

There are presently 12 'baby cancer and heart transplant hoaxes' being shared on Facebook. Most photos are being re-shared between 1000 and 100,000 times, with some reaching as high as 300,000 to 600,000 times. This means these 12 images may appear on Facebook many millions of times. Desperately upsetting for the families of the children in the photographs, as well as families of children who are also sick or disabled.

The group argues that since there are really only a handful of images being shared again and again, Facebook can easily neutralize the issue. In May 2011, Facebook started using Microsoft's PhotoDNA technology to help fight child pornography by proactively detecting child exploitation material on the site, and in some cases, prevent it from ever being uploaded. The open letter asks why PhotoDNA can't be used to fight these scams and hoaxes as well:

There are 12 different images being shared. Is Facebook using the PhotoDNA software it was proud to announce, to detect and remove these 12 images and prevent them from being uploaded again? If not, please can you explain why not, and what steps Facebook is taking to remove them? The current Facebook reporting tool does not give options which can adequately cover instances of child exploitation and the breached privacy rights of the children depicted in the photographs being shared. The closest option is 'Spam/Scam', but this issue is neither. It is child exploitation, misleading content, and/ or IP theft. We feel it may be beneficial for Facebook to amend its report tool to add an option for 'Contains material involving children'. Any reports made with this option should immediately be escalated to Facebook staff for investigation.

In summary, the group asks Facebook that it:

  • Amend its Photo Reporting tool to include an option titled 'Contains material involving children', possibly with sub-options to more easily inform Facebook as to the nature and issue with the content, such as; 'This photo is not the property of the uploader', 'This is a scam exploiting children', 'This photo shows abuse of a child', and 'This photo contains misleading information'.
  • Utilise the tools at its disposal, such as PhotoDNA, to seek out and remove all images represented in the aforementioned document, and any such similar material.
  • Take action to rebuke the false claims that Facebook will donate money for shares on these images, and that Facebook does not condone the sharing of such images, which are exploiting the children in question under a misconception.

I have contacted Facebook in regards to the second open letter as well as the petition and will update you if I hear back.

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