A shocking pic of a 4-year-old forced to sleep on the floor of an over-crowded local hospital sparked a social media storm last week. But was it real or just another case of fake news going viral?
And what does it all tell us about truth, trust and the power of disinformation in the Age of Social Media?
When four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr was rushed to Leeds Hospital by ambulance last week with suspected pneumonia, mum Sarah was informed there was a bed shortage, and her child would need to sleep on the floor.
Sarah snapped a pic of her little boy, hooked up to an IV drip and asleep on a pile of coats, and sent it to the Yorkshire Evening Post. The local paper reported on the incident and featured the photo prominently.
In that article, Sarah, a teacher’s aide, reported that hospital staff were "all as helpful as they could be" in explaining the overcrowded conditions, and added that the head of the hospital offered her a personal apology. Jack, meanwhile, finally got a bed 13 hours after being admitted.
All’s well that end’s well, right? If only.
“Very interesting,” the post read. “A friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital, and ..."
Because shortly after the newspaper report appeared, the photo was shared extensively on social media - sparking a cruel campaign to discredit Jack’s family.
It was kicked off by a post shared widely on Facebook and Twitter from a user who claimed that the photo was staged.
“Very interesting,” the message read. “A friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital.” It goes on to say that Sarah had deliberately placed her son on the floor.
The accusation was a complete fiction.
Jack was diagnosed with Influenza A and tonsillitis by doctors and was discharged the following day. But the drama had only just begun for his family.
A UK-based group that tracks disinformation, First Draft, traced the first known post to Facebook. But when reporters reached the woman to whom it had been attributed, she told them that her account had been hacked.
“I’ve had to delete everything as I have had death threats to myself and my children,” she explained.
The Evening Post itself took a battering on social media for allegedly failing to fact-check its sources
“Why don’t you just go into the hospital and ask for a statement from nurses, they will tell you! Or can’t you be bothered …?” was a typical response.
On 10 December, a week after the original article, the paper defended itself vigorously in a second piece under the banner headline DON’T BE FOOLED BY FAKE NEWS.
“Never has there been a time when journalism, the industry and our journalists have come under such scrutiny and criticism and frankly, it is worrying about the power of social media and its reach," it admonished. "The level of abuse would not be accepted on the streets and must not be tolerated."
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