Police departments across the US are warning Facebook users that a child abuse video captioned with a vague plea to identify the perpetrator is spreading across the site via direct messages and status updates - and that sharing this nightmare chain letter or even viewing its contents is, obviously, a crime that could result in serious penalties up to and including felony charges.
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Police departments in Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, and a number of other US states have all warned that possession or distribution of child pornography is a crime and directed anyone receiving the messages to report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's anonymous tipline. Per AL.com, police and non-profit officials have in particular had to warn the public that sharing such content is not legal even if the purpose is supposedly to express outrage or help identify the perpetrator. Polk County, Florida police told Fox 13 their inboxes have been inundated with reports:
The video, according to law enforcement officials, shows an adult male sexually abusing a young child.
"PLEASE DO NOT SHARE those images or video," the Polk County Sheriff's Office said in a message posted to their Facebook page Sunday. "Images and video depicting the sexual abuse of a child are pornography. Sharing them, even if your intent is to help, is a crime and continues to victimize the child."
It isn't totally clear how far the messages have actually spread - many of the police statements seem pre-emptive, and it's possible that the spread of the video is more limited than the widespread warnings might suggest. Many of the police departments appear to simply be hearing about the alleged viral phenomenon via other police departments in other states, and the internet often fuels panics over exaggerated criminal incidents. However, in this case the incidents have attracted FBI attention, the International Business Times reported.
According to AL.com, while Alabama police investigators say they have confirmed the image originated in that state and have identified the perpetrator and victim shown therein, that conclusion has been challenged by Central Alabama Crime Stoppers, which says investigators have not even been able to nail down what year the video is from.
"If you receive this video through social media, report it to the social media platform and delete it immediately," CACS executive director Tony Garrett told the site. "Do not share it, as criminal charges may result."
"If you see something of that nature in the summary of your messages, do not actually open the message but instead delete it immediately," Marshall, Texas police wrote, per the Houston Chronicle.
Facebook recently started a new program to remove revenge porn from the site, though said system involves having human moderators review the content. Per the Guardian, it should nonetheless technically have the ability to compile a digital footprint of the content in question and automatically remove it from the site due to partnerships with agencies such as the NCMEC.