Facebook confusion over fake cancer babies U-turns

Jasper Allen fake postImage copyright
Facebook/Mercury Press

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A post featuring Jasper Allen, falsely claiming he had cancer, was shared and liked more than 1.4 million times

Facebook has apologised for repeatedly restoring an account that posted stolen photos of children falsely claiming they had cancer.

The social network twice disabled the account following complaints, only to re-enable it hours later.

“These posts are clearly distressing for the families and this content has now been removed,” a spokeswoman said.

“We apologise for the delay in taking them down.”

The social network acted for a third time after the matter was brought to its attention by the BBC. It has not explained the actions of its complaints team.

One internet expert said the behaviour had been “bonkers” and called into question Facebook’s safety procedures.

Fake appeal

The BBC reported on Tuesday the case of a child from Cambridgeshire whose photos had been used alongside a fake plea for help.

“This little baby has cancer and he need money for surgery,” the accompanying post stated.

It added that Facebook would donate money for every “like”, comment or share of the message.

The picture was posted at the start of February. More than one million people responded.

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The account was disabled and then made live again on Tuesday (the profile image has been obscured as it may have been stolen)

Security experts said such tactics were often used by “like farming” scammers.

Perpetrators attempt to engage as many users as possible so that they can later target them with follow-up messages and/or sell on the profile page and its associated contacts to unscrupulous marketers.

The mother of the child – Sarah Allen from St Neots, Cambridgeshire – said she had been upset by the discovery.

“We had people messaging saying they had heard Jasper has cancer,” she told the BBC.

“He doesn’t. These were pictures from when he had chickenpox.”

Facebook eventually deleted this post but – after overturning Tuesday’s short-lived account block – left similar fake cancer posts featuring other children live.

The BBC determined they included an photo of a three-year-old girl from England, who was injured in a road accident in 2015. The image belongs to her parents.

“I need the photo to be removed,” said the mother of the girl – who asked not to be named – when she was informed of its misuse.

“I am extremely upset about it.”

Other images showed:

  • a teenage boy from Texas in a coma with viral meningitis. His family had run a separate crowdfunding campaign to help pay for his treatment
  • a young girl from Texas who has progeria, a genetic disorder that causes premature ageing. Her mother had blogged about her life
  • a baby girl from Pennsylvania, who needed an operation for omphalocele, a birth defect of her abdomen. Her parents had shared photos online of her surgery
  • a baby from Florida, who died after being born with a defect of the diaphragm. The image had been featured in the local press

In addition, the account featured several photos of dead young children in coffins, claiming users would have “76 year of bad luck” if they scrolled past without liking or sharing the posts.

Facebook’s community standards say it does not allow posts featuring images that infringe other people’s copyright.

The company does not require each rights holder to make a claim before acting.

‘Bare minimum’

Facebook first disabled the account on 10 January after Mrs Allen had sent several messages to its complaints team, only for it to be made live again the next day.

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Facebook told Mrs Allen that the profile had been removed, but it restored it a day later

The social network took the account offline again on Tuesday afternoon, but it was active again about five hours later.

The BBC questioned the decision early this morning. But it was not until about 15:00 GMT that the account was taken offline for a third time.

Cybersecurity expert Prof Alan Woodward said Facebook did not appear to have scrutinised the case closely enough despite the publicity it had already generated.

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The fake posts can no longer be viewed on the social network

“Clearly anybody should have the right to appeal their account being taken down, but if it’s returned up that quickly it doesn’t show much due process has been taken in checking it out,” said the University of Surrey lecturer.

“It’s difficult not to conclude Facebook was doing the bare minimum here.”