One day, I was trolling Facebook on my phone and saw a funny captioned picture that I liked. I tapped and held down with my thumb until the save dialog box popped up and I saved it to my phone. From there, I shared it again on facebook. The photo also saved automatically to my PhotoStream and, from there, onto my hard drive. I didn’t think much of this action until I had the thought, “What if someone did this with a picture of my kids?” That’s when I stopped putting my kids’ pictures on Facebook.
I know intellectually that it’s unlikely anyone on my friends list would do anything nefarious with pictures of my kids. The most likely scenario would be my mother-in-law saving an especially cute photo for her own collection. I’m probably paranoid. But then I read stories like this one about a cancer hoax blog from the Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago:
“Sarah Gilliam, a professional photographer from Tennessee, was busy at work on May 30 when she received a disturbing and confusing email. The note contained a link to a blog about a 3-year-old named Reilly who had passed away from cancer. Gilliam recognized the boy right away. There, staring back at her from the screen was her own 5-year-old, Jack, in a photo she had taken herself on his birthday.
Gilliam and her husband, Patrick, investigated, and found out that their family was at the center of a very elaborate hoax. Dozens of photos that Gilliam had posted on her private blog had been stolen and reused. In a phone interview with The Huffington Post, Gilliam explained how the story — first reported by The Tennessean — unraveled.
For about 10 months, a person claiming to be a mom named Casey Bowman kept a blog called “Remembering Reilly” documenting her son’s battle with leukemia. The dark and detailed posts articulated painful milestones after Reilly’s passing—the moment she had to tell her older son, Langston, the family’s first Thanksgiving without Reilly, and even her own struggle with packing up Reilly’s things.”
Yes, you read that right. Someone started a fake blog about a fictitious child who died of pretend cancer but used real pictures of a real mom’s real son. If my choices are emailing picture to my mother in law privately and leaving my kids’ images vulnerable to sicko stuff like this, I’ll take email any day.
Disease hoax sites are such a common occurrence that there is actually an organization called the Warrior Eli Hoax Group devoted to tracking them down. Hoaxes like this are often products of a syndrom called Munchausen By Internet where people fake illnesses using the internet to garner support, sympathy and sometimes money and gifts. It’s related to Munchausen syndrome where people go to elaborate lengths to fake a disease in real space. There was a great article called The Lying Disease posted on The Stranger about the syndrome back in November 2012. People will create disease journey websites and join online support communities all based on a false premise. They’ll sometimes suck in dozens of people and make thousands of dollars in donations before they get caught or disappear from the internet. Using stolen images may be a new wrinkle but a person willing to fake cancer probably doesn’t care much about copyright issues.
Now, make no mistake, the people behind fake sites like Remembering Reilly are sick and need a whole lot of help. However, what they’re doing impacts real people in real ways. I can only imagine the horror Sarah Gilliam felt when she found a whole blog detailing the death of a child with her child’s face as the image of that child. It’s horrifying. And it’s a strong reminder to be careful how we share photos and personal information on the internet and also to wary of stories that don’t add up before we get invested in strangers’ lives.
Photo credit: photo stock
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