Five websites that have built a business around debunking rumours, scams, and hoaxes on social networks (Hoax-Slayer, That's Nonsense, The Bulldog Estate, Facecrooks, and facebookprivacyandsecurity) have banded together. They have sent a letter to multiple publications asking for help to bring more media attention to a growing issue: in the last few months, hoaxes that exploit pictures of sick babies are spreading on Facebook like never before. The quintet hopes more publicity will not only educate users about the problem but it may also pressure Facebook into being more proactive when it comes to removing the hoaxes.
This type of hoax involves photographs of ill and/or disabled children in hospitals being shared virally across Facebook. Sometimes the hoax asks Facebook users to donate for the child's medical expenses and other times it promises that sharing the photo will result in donations from Facebook itself. Both claims are false: if you donate money, you're just giving it straight to the scammer, and if you share the photo, you're only helping the hoax become viral, since Facebook will never donate money based on the number of shares.
A hoaxer typically takes one or more photographs of a sick child, without the permission of knowledge of the victim's family. He or she then uploads it to Facebook, adds a false caption claiming sharing will bring about donations towards curing the child of some disease it likely does not have (typically scammers choose cancer). The photo is shared publicly to increase the chance of it going viral and thousands of Facebook users often do so, thinking that they are helping. If you want to see an example, check out Facebook hoax: this child's got a cancer.
Families often find it very unsettling to learn photos of their sick relatives have been used to perpetuate these scams and hoaxes. In fact, in regards to the aforementioned story above, I recently received an e-mail titled "Baby photo with 'cancer'." Here was the message: "I am friends with the parents of this baby, and they just found out tonight that his picture is all over the internet. Can they do anything to stop it??"
I had to unfortunately tell the concerned individual that no, there really wasn't anything that could be done. Once an image like that is on the Internet and has spread far and wide because it has gone viral, there's no way to have it taken down.
That being said, if such a hoax is caught early enough, it may be possible to stop it in its tracks. Right now, Facebook relies on reports from users to stop such scams and hoaxes. The five websites work hard encouraging users to report popular instances of offending photos, but when it comes to viral content, Facebook just doesn't react quickly enough.
Many of these stolen photos of ill and disabled children, some extremely graphic, have been online for weeks and months, and are still there today. Those that are taken down often accumulate tens of thousands of shares first. The quintet says it is playing catch up: new instances of these images are being uploaded and shared faster than the sites can get users to report them in order for Facebook to take them down.
The five websites believe Facebook needs to take more responsibility to prevent the viral circulation of these photos. "Frankly, the response from Facebook has been slow-to-absent," the letter reads. "These photos should be removed, all of them, much faster, more efficiently and repeat occurrences should be blocked by the implementation of a simple image detection system. We need to do this to prevent the distress and tremendous upset it causes to the individuals and families of the children in the photos and the people who unwittingly help perpetuate them."
I don't believe Facebook is going to hire the manpower to actively scan for such scams and hoaxes. I do, however, believe the company can work harder on improving its algorithms for flagging such content and build a system to kill off a viral image if it is reported enough.
These scams and hoaxes spread through the Facebook News Feed, where your friends see them and also share them. If a post is reported often enough, it shouldn't appear in anyone's News Feed until Facebook can look at it and determine whether it should be going viral. This is especially true if the caption claims that Facebook is going to be making donations. It wouldn't be that hard to have algorithms check for an image: that is being shared and Liked a lot, that is also being reported a lot, and that mentions "Facebook" and/or "donation" in the caption.
While the quintet has tried getting in touch with Facebook, the social networking giant has apparently not been very helpful. I have contacted Facebook and will update you if I hear back.
In the meantime, you can read the full letter yourself below:
Firstly, I would like to say that I am writing on behalf of several popular websites that deal with debunking vicious rumours that circulate social networking sites. These sites include hoax-slayer.com, thatsnonsense.com, thebulldogestate.com, facecrooks.com, facebookprivacyandsecurity.wordpress.com and several other helpful blogs.
Over the last handful of months we have all witnessed a particularly nasty type of hoax that has circulated prolifically across social networking sites, especially Facebook.com, persistently achieving what I would refer to as a high degree of viral success.
This particular hoax I am talking about is one that involves photographs of ill/disabled children in hospital being shared virally across Facebook on the false assertion that sharing the photo will induce donations from Facebook for medical expenses for the child. A hoaxer takes the photograph, uploads it to Facebook and adds a caption that not only falsely claims sharing the photo will bring about donations, but also commonly wrongly misattributes certain diseases – typically cancer – to the child, and other mistaken details as well. The photo is then made public and is prolifically shared amongst well meaning, yet misguided Facebook users. On a side note we have also seen a recent trend where certain page owners will share these photos from their Facebook pages to [presumably] gain fans.
I would like to point out now that these photos of children are stolen and used without the permission or even knowledge of the families involved. The hoaxer finds the photos from public albums or search engines and simply copies them before uploading them to Facebook. Given the nature of these photos, it is of course deeply upsetting for the families to learn that photos of their sick relatives have been used to perpetuate such an immoral joke. Worse still for Julie Chambers, since her child Zoe - who was the subject of one such hoax - passed away some years prior. Her story can be found here.
Over the past month or so our collective websites have been working hard to encourage users to report popular instances of offending photos. Our efforts often result in many hundreds if not thousands of users reporting these photos, but to our disappointment and frustration Facebook are simply not responding in what we would consider an acceptable manner, if they respond at all. Many photos, some extremely graphic, have remained online to the public for days gaining many thousands of shares. Some of these stolen photos of ill and disabled children have been online for weeks and months, and are still there today. Many of these photos stay online for days and accrue many tens of thousands of shares before being taken down, with some still remaining online. (see reference section below)
Since tracing the sick individuals who start these hoaxes would likely prove fruitless, given the nature of social networking, we firmly believe the responsibility to prevent the viral circulation of these photos falls straight into the hands of Facebook themselves. Frankly, the response from Facebook has been slow-to-absent. These photos should be removed, all of them, much faster, more efficiently and repeat occurrences should be blocked by the implementation of a simple image detection system. We need to do this to prevent the distress and tremendous upset it causes to the individuals and families of the children in the photos and the people who unwittingly help perpetuate them.
With the lack of any appropriate way of contacting Facebook about the issue, all communication we have had with them regarding this has sadly fallen upon deaf ears it would appear. And this is why I am writing to you today. We need to find a way of dramatically increasing the awareness and exposure of this trending problem before it worsens and more families are affected. We are appealing for a media drive about this, not only to educate users to the problem (which will lessen the success these hoaxes enjoy) but also to perhaps pressure Facebook into some sort of action.
The situation as it stands is that new instances of these images are being uploaded and shared quicker than we can accumulate enough reports to get them down. Facebook need to stop new instances of these photos being created, because as it stands we're always playing catch up.
We are sending this to you and other various news outlets and high profile bloggers for consideration for possible coverage. Feel free to contact me or any of the others involved for more information.
For your reference I include a list of emails for the people involved and links to sources.
Craig Haley, thatsnonsense.com
Steve Williamson, hoax-slayer.com
Brett Christensen, hoax-slayer.com
Tim Senft, facecrooks.com
Shevaun Fitzpatrick, hoax-slayer.com
David White, hoax-slayer.com
Tony Mazan, thebulldogestate.com
Miles Renatus, facebookprivacyandsecurity.wordpress.com
Bev Robb, thebulldogestate.com