A member of the public has claimed she was hacked after being named online as the source of a viral false claim that a photo of a boy on a hospital floor was staged.
The woman, who was alleged to have posted the now-viral claim on Facebook, told the PA news agency she had received death threats as a result of being named online as the source.
It came after the editorial director of the Yorkshire Evening Post, which broke the story, attacked “dark forces” attempting to discredit it online.
The newspaper first reported the story of four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr after his mother Sarah Williment covered him in coats to keep him warm.
The incident then received further attention as Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially refused to look at the picture when it was shown to him by ITV journalist Joe Pike.
Tried to show @BorisJohnson the picture of Jack Williment-Barr. The 4-year-old with suspected pneumonia forced to lie on a pile of coats on the floor of a Leeds hospital.
— Joe Pike (@joepike) December 9, 2019
Later on Monday, hundreds of duplicated messages appeared from various accounts on Facebook and Twitter, attempting to debunk the photo.
The copied and pasted message read: “Very interesting. A good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital – the boy shown on the floor by the media was in fact put there by his mother who then took photos on her mobile phone and uploaded it to media outlets before he climbed back onto his trolley.”
The original message was attributed by social media users to a Facebook post by a member of the public.
After a reader contacted him about the claim, James Mitchinson, Johnston Press’ editorial director for Yorkshire, tweeted a letter he had sent her outlining the newspaper’s processes for verifying the story.
He added that the newspaper “went to great lengths to establish the story was true”, adding: “I would be happy to meet you over a coffee to offer you an explanation as to how sophisticated and corrosive the proliferation of fake news is, and what to do to guard against being conned by it.”
“I do hope we are not too late to help people like her, so unfairly manipulated and discombobulated by cynical social media messaging driven by dark forces,” he said.
While it is difficult to verify the original source of the attempts to discredit the photo, researchers at anti-disinformation group First Draft found several hundred copies of the message across Facebook and Twitter, including shares by prominent celebrities and journalists.
Alastair Reid, digital editor at First Draft, told PA: “Both on Facebook and Twitter we’ve seen a concerted effort to put this claim in front of as many people as possible.
“On Twitter that has meant accounts have been contacting celebrities, athletes, journalists and politicians and telling them to share it. On Facebook we have seen the same paragraph of text pushed into pro-Brexit and pro-Conservative Facebook groups again and again and again.”
However, he urged people to steer clear of talk of “bots” – or automated accounts – driving the conversation.
“At this stage it’s very difficult to say whether there is any automated or co-ordinated activity and it’s better not to jump to conclusions,” he added.