We don’t really need to be reminded at this stage about the sheer power of social media, and how fast misinformation can be passed around the world.
Hoaxes can often be divided into two categories, either easy to debunk or difficult to debunk. Considering the fact that the former still enjoys regular viral success across social media websites, there is little hope of tackling the latter just yet.
And the image of a little Syrian boy sleeping between the graves of his two dead parents would certainly qualify as the latter. At the time the photo went viral it was difficult to dismiss (unless your familiar with reverse image searches) simply because A. there was not much information regarding the photo available at the time and B. given the current volatile situation in Syria, the photo could have very well been true.
But it wasn’t true. The boy was not sleeping. He did not lose his parents, and the “graves” either side of him were empty, at least according to this website (that also posted another “behind-the-scene” photo of the same boy smiling) who reached out to the photographer.
The photo was taken by a photographer named Abdul Aziz al Otaibix, but initially there was no intention of forgery. According to Otaibix, it was part of an art project, and the boy in the photograph was his nephew.
It turns out that the photo, after being on Facebook for a while, was stolen, taken out of context (enter the little Syrian boy between parents grave story) and tweeted into the wild. Much to the annoyance of Otaibix.
And from there it went viral, even fooling media outlets and even Syrian politicians, who passed along the picture from their own social media accounts to their collective hundreds of thousands of followers, much to their eventual embarrassment.
And pictures like this that can be exploited for religious or political propaganda are practically destined to become online superstars.
The whole story provides another illustration of just how easy it is to spread misinformation on a global scale.
It also illustrates how important it is to spend the time to verify an image before passing it on to your social media contacts, but as we said, rumors that a 2.5 second Google search could dismiss are still spreading like wildfire every single day, so really, what hope did this photo ever have?