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Beware clickbait posing as sad coronavirus stories

“My only son is infected with corona virus 3 days after I lost his mother,” reads a screenshot posted on a South African Facebook prayer group. “He is the only one I have left please don't ignore us.”

It shows a photo of an unconscious boy with an oxygen tube in his nose lying in what seems to be a hospital bed. Another photo shows a man in tears.

The screenshot goes on to ask users to “share in four groups let’s make a prayer chain”. It’s had nearly 690,000 views since 2 May 2020, and been shared more than 9,000 times.

But it’s not what it seems.


Photos from before coronavirus pandemic

A reverse image search of the photo of the boy reveals that it has been online for more than a year. It was posted on Facebook on 28 February 2019 with a Spanish-language message that the unidentified boy was about to have an emergency operation.

Neither Africa Check nor our fact-checking colleagues at the India Today Anti Fake News War Room, who looked into the photo on 7 May 2020, could find its real origins.

The new coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The child could not have Covid-19, a disease only named in February 2020.

And the photo of the crying man is a stock image that’s been online since at least 2015. We traced it to the iStock photo website, where it’s described as “sad young fellow stock photo” and “hip young man in a plaid shirt with some tears”.

Clickbait, ads and malware

The photos in the screenshot have nothing to do with the coronavirus. What’s going on here?

An odd website URL is given at the bottom of the screenshot: We found the same sad story on the site, with the same photos. The page also has link text: “Read full story here and see more photos.”

When Africa Check clicked the link we were taken to a porn site. Clicking the browser’s “back” button redirected us to a site selling Bitcoin, and then to a web page on the Mirror, a UK tabloid.

The story is clickbait, designed to attract user clicks to earn advertising money or possibly install malware.

A Google search for the first sentence in the screenshot reveals the story has been shared in other Facebook posts and published on more dodgy blog pages. Most of the posts and pages have been deleted.



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