A number of posts in local Facebook groups across England falsely claim that an autistic child named Brandon Smith has gone missing with his dog Hank.
Full Fact has found near-identical versions of the posts, which all use the same picture of a young girl and boy sitting on a log with a dog in community groups in Doncaster, Whaley Bridge and Gateshead.
The text of the post reads: “Please HELP!!! [...] My son Brandon Smith took off this morning with our dog hank. He is autistic and has been missing for eight hours if anyone sees him please PM me please re-post on any sites.I already contacted police [sic].”
But these are not real appeals for help. Besides the fact it would be impossible for the same child to be missing from three separate places at the same time, Derbyshire Police and Northumbria Police told us they had not received reports of a missing person matching the boy’s description.
South Yorkshire Police told us all missing person appeals were posted to their Flickr page, but there are no pictures matching the image of “Brandon Smith”.
We were not able to trace the original version of the photo, but police forces in the US have previously warned that they believed the same picture was being used to mislead people in a similar way in local community groups in Minnesota and Kansas City.
We have fact checked many posts in the past using almost exactly the same wording about a child missing with their dog, including children also allegedly called Brandon Smith but featuring a picture of a different child.
Another indication that the claims in these posts are false is that the comments are almost always turned off, in order to prevent people from alerting other social media users. Derbyshire Police has previously said that this is a clue a post is a hoax, as people genuinely searching for information are unlikely to close the comments.
Missing children aren’t the only subject of the hoax appeals we see being shared extremely widely online. In the past we’ve checked claims about babies allegedly snatched from hospitals, missing pensioners with dementia and deadly rattlesnakes found by the roadside.
We’ve seen these apparently urgent appeals edited later, after amassing shares, comments and reactions, to promote freebies, cashback or property listings.
This behaviour means that local groups may become overwhelmed with false information. As a result, people genuinely trying to trace relatives or look for missing people could get ignored or—perhaps worse for those desperately searching for loved ones—dismissed as false.
We have written to Meta expressing these concerns and asking the company to take stronger action in response to this problem.
It’s always worth checking whether content is real before you share it. We have written a guide on how to verify viral images which you can read here.