This 2007 image has been liked and shared thousands of times on Facebook -- with no permission from the girl's family.
Courtesy Amanda Rieth
This 2007 image has been liked and shared thousands of times on Facebook -- with no permission from the girl's family.

Story highlights

"Like farming" on Facebook takes advantage of users' good intentions to make posts go viral

Making a page more popular with likes and shares makes it show up for more users

Owners can then use the popular page to advertise, or sell it to someone else

Often, images and videos are used without permission of their owners

CNN —  

It’s an image that tugs at the heartstrings. A smiling 7-year-old girl poses in her cheerleading uniform, circled by a ring of pompons, her bald head a telltale sign of her chemotherapy treatments.

The photo hit Facebook last year and popped up all over with messages of support. “Like” to show this little girl you care. “Share” to tell her she’s beautiful. Pray for her to beat cancer.

But here’s the truth. The photo was nearly six years old. And neither the girl, nor her parents – who never posted it to Facebook – had any idea it was being used that way.

Welcome to the world of Facebook “like farming.”

Those waves of saccharin-sweet posts that sometimes fill your news feed may seem harmless. But all too often, they’re being used for nefarious purposes. At best, a complete stranger may be using the photos to stroke their own ego. At worst, experts say, scammers and spammers are using Facebook, often against the site’s rules, to make some easy cash.

And they’re wiling to play on the good intentions of Facebook users to do it.

“The average user doesn’t know any better,” said Tim Senft, founder of Facecrooks.com, a website that monitors scams and other illegal or unethical behavior on Facebook. “I think their common sense tells them it’s not true, but in the back of their minds, they think ‘What if it is true? What does it hurt if I press like?’ or whatever.”

What does it hurt?

“I was first shocked,” said Amanda Rieth of Northampton, Pennsylvania, whose daughter was the subject of that photo. “And then infuriated.”

After being notified by a friend who recognized the girl in a Facebook post, Rieth tracked the image back to a link she’d posted to her Photobucket account in a community forum in 2009, two years after