You may have seen it in your Facebook news feed: a picture of a mother in the NICU cradling her baby surrounded by medical equipment, a smiling child with down syndrome, a trach tube, a cleft palate, or missing a limb. Maybe there’s a frail child curled up in a hospital bed, or even a tiny lifeless body .
The caption urges you to pray or “don’t scroll without typing amen.” It promises that “one like = RIP, share = 1,000 prayers” or tells you to “Share if you think she’s cute.”
Hundreds of thousands of people share, like, and type “amen,” on these photos. But, in actuality, those likes and shares hurt families and only benefit unscrupulous scam artists who exploit people for profit or ego.
Don’t Like, Don’t Share, Don’t Type Amen
It comes down to who benefits from those likes, shares and “amens.” It’s not the family or the child. Often, they don’t even know that their image has been shared. The only people who benefit are shady Facebook users looking to improve their page ranking by preying on the kindness of others.
Facebook determines how interesting a page/person is based on a a tally of the likes, shares and comments that their posts get. The higher the tally, the more visible the page will be in news feeds (more at TechCabel or Time.com).
Posts playing on people’s sympathy to generate likes, shares, and comments are easy ways to boost a Facebook page’s reach. This is called “like farming,” or “facebook farming.” As Lyn Peyok at Dowitcher Designs explains:
“Pages can be used to drive traffic back to a website that then collects ad revenue on all the clicks. . . they can be used to launch phishing scams that attempt to solicit personal information such as contact details, credit cards, and passwords; or to infect your computer with malware.”
But, other than supporting a scam, what’s the harm in liking or sharing? How is it any worse than sharing a funny meme or quote on a lovely background?
It boils down to consent. Chances are good that the family whose photo you see has not given permission to have their child’s image used this way. Many times these photos are lifted from Facebook albums with inadequate privacy settings, blogs, medical websites, image searches, and even from closed Facebook groups without them even knowing.
A Facebook user in a preemie support group I belong to saw a picture shared in her news feed that was heart-stoppingly familiar. In it, a woman held her micro preemie gently with her head bowed. The caption read “her baby died. Type amen.”
It belonged to another member of the support group who had shared it a week or so before her preemie died. In the chaos of the NICU, this mom had not realized that one of her photo albums was public, and an unscrupulous person had lifted the photo and used it for like farming.
The group member notified the woman in the picture and she locked down her Facebook page, but it was too late. The photo had been shared over 100,000 times. The picture continues to pop up a year later because other scammers have copied it to use it on their own like-farming pages.
Every person who engages with that photo and feels good about themselves for doing so, contributes to the extension of this family’s pain.
Another parent describes her experience “The picture of the first moment I got to hold my son after weeks of waiting was stolen. This is apparently not against Facebook rules and they won’t do anything if you report it although it’s an option listed when you report the post. They will ask you to untag yourself or to ask the person to take it down.” To help stop this problem, most support groups have strict rules about not stealing images.
Sharing photos on Facebook can help parents feel connected with far flung family and celebrate their children. Photos posted in support groups help parents get advice and guidance from other parents who’ve been there, and lets them celebrate milestones only easily understood by others experiencing the same thing. The fact anyone would violate the safe space of a support group is shameful.
Ok, so not liking/sharing or commenting makes sense. It can lead to malware on your computer, it rewards scammers, and hurts families. But what’s so bad about praying?
For starters, people don’t know the context of the photo. That child they’re praying over may not need or want pity or prayers.
That picture of a child in a wheelchair, with a missing limb, using a medical device, or with a medical challenge may not be sad at all. It may be a moment of triumph or joy. It may be a child meeting a milestone, or it may just be Tuesday (Surprise! Parents of special needs kids take as many random pride-filled pictures of their kids as everyone else.).
In a famous example, a bald young cheerleader smiles at the camera on a beautiful fall day, and the caption pleads with users to like or pray to help her overcome cancer, and share to tell her she was beautiful. Except she already overcame cancer – several years ago. The picture was 7 years old when it first popped up without the family’s permission (CNN, 2014). Over half a million people shared and prayed over a photo of a perfectly healthy child who never requested their help or their approval of her appearance.
Everything about the photo screams “proud parents.” The fact she happened to have cancer was irrelevant to the picture, and focusing on cancer instead of the child perpetuates a widespread problem people with disabilities or medical challenges often face: invisibility. People see only the medical devices, assistive devices or signs of an illness, and miss the fact that there is a person in front of them. It’s frustrating and dehumanizing, and each time people share these memes, they contribute to the problem.
One parent says of her child with a rare genetic disorder: “I don’t need 500,000 complete strangers telling me my child is cute. I know my child is beautiful. That’s why I took the picture.”
Even if the photo was originally shared to garner support within a small group, that is much different, and more private, than getting the pity of hundreds of thousands of strangers. A parent explains “my son as been through enough and we deserve privacy and respect and to treated with dignity. Not to become a ‘type amen or you’re heartless’ spam post or to be a “she deserves 100 likes” BS post.”
Of course there are worse things than pity: posts that mock medical conditions, full on identity theft. But, just because there are worse things doesn’t make this thing acceptable.
Further, when you pray over a stolen photo, you feel good without contributing to a greater good. As Jenna Buswell, the mother of one child whose image was stolen and misrepresented, explained in a Seattle news story, “Stop and think about us. Go out and volunteer. Walk a walk. Show your support in different ways. Think about the family that the picture being used is from and what they’re stories may really be. What the truth is.”
Generally speaking, if you don’t pray over every child in your news feed, you don’t need to pray over a special needs child’s picture.
How do you know you shouldn’t like or share?
The easiest thing is to not like/share photos of kids you don’t know. Just avoid clicking like, typing a response, or sharing these photos. Then, ask those of your friends who share these images to please stop.
You can also check out the page. Is it a stream of images that serve no purpose other than to gain “likes?” Is it a business? Then, it’s probably like-farming. Reputable pages link to the actual news stories for their heartwarming content, not to some spammy website or doctored image.
You can run the image through Tineye, a reverse photo search engine, to find the original post of it and notify its owners. I get a hit every 3 or so photos that I check on Tineye because the database is incomplete, but it’s growing so eventually you can get better results.
All children deserve the same privacy and respect, and this practice strips that away. Don’t perpetuate it.
Please note, that this post contains unattributed quotes. This is at the request of the individuals quoted. Also, the photo examples can all be traced back to national news publications and blogs. These are a small minority of the images used in like-farming, but I didn’t want to become a part of the problem by sharing images originally posted privately, even if they are already viral.