Vast numbers of Twitter and Facebook accounts spread fake story to undermine photo of child on hospital floor

Andrew Griffin
British Prime Minister and Conservative leader Boris Johnson arrives to speak at a general election campaign rally: Ben Stansall - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Thousands of Facebook and Twitter accounts have shared an entirely false claim that a photograph showing the depths of the NHS crisis is fake.

The image – showing an ill child who was forced to sleep on the floor because of a lack of beds at the hospital treating him – has caused outrage across the country during an election that has brought the future of the NHS sharply into focus.

But a large number of social media accounts have been used to spread a story that the picture was actually fake or staged. That is despite the fact that the hospital involved – Leeds General Infirmary – confirmed there was a lack of beds on the day in question and apologised to the child and his family.

The fake tweets began soon after the image and the story of Jack Williment-Barr began to spread across the media, leading questions to be asked of Boris Johnson.

As the story developed, a variety of accounts started tweeting the same post, which suggested they had insight into the process behind the photo. Some of the tweets were altered slightly, but all of them carried largely the same wording.

"Very interesting. A good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital," it began, before going on to claim that the photo was staged and that the child was placed on the floor purely for a photo before going back onto a trolley.

The person who appears to have first shared this story has since claimed that her account was hacked, and told the Guardian that she knows nobody in Leeds and does not support any particular political party.

Another widely circulated post claimed to be from a former paediatric nurse, and claimed to indicate that there was something suspect about some part of the image. There is nothing to indicate that any of those posts were actually legitimate, either.

Very soon after, senior journalists and Conservative candidates began sharing those same claims. Former England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, who is followed by three million people on Twitter, shared the post on his account.

The text of the tweet was also shared onto Facebook, which helped increase its spread. While some speculated that the post was being amplified by bots, many apparently real accounts were seemingly copy and pasting the tweet to share it.

There is nothing to indicate that any of the claims in the tweets were true. There is also reason to doubt that the "senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital" actually exists: there is no place called "Leeds Hospital", and the photograph was taken at Leeds General Infirmary.

The journalist who first reported the story in Leeds News, Daniel Sheridan, responded to the claims on Twitter.

"Sarah contacted the Yorkshire Evening Post following her son’s stay at the hospital," he wrote. "Due to the nature of the accusations, I requested and gave time for a full response from Leeds General Infirmary.

"Within the response, Dr Yvette Oade, Chief Medical Officer at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, confirmed Jack and his family had been given a full apology.

"Also within the statement, Dr Oade said 'We are extremely sorry that there were only chairs available in the treatment room, and no bed. This falls below our usual high standards, and for this we would like to sincerely apologise to Jack and his family.'

"No story would ever be published by Leeds News​ without full verification. This was in no way staged, and highlights the need to check all accusations to avoid any miscommunication. The hospital also confirmed they were experiencing their busiest day since April 2016.

"Sarah had no issue with the treatment Jack was given by the doctors or nurses. She told me the NHS was in crisis and it was my duty to report this fully and accurately."

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