A viral video purporting to show a young Syrian boy rescuing a girl under fire from a sniper has been outed as a sham. The clip was initially reported as authentic by several Western media outlets, and it has been viewed over 3.8 million times on YouTube.
The video — dubbed "Syrian Hero Boy" — was the creation of Norwegian filmmakers hoping to pass the footage off as real and draw attention to the issue of children in conflict zones. The dramatic clip shows a boy dashing through a dusty street and dodging bullets to rescue a little girl hiding behind a burned-out car. Onlookers shout "Allahu Akbar" in the background as the kids make their escape.
"The film appears to show an authentic phone or amateur video recording, but is in fact a short fiction film released in the hopes to create political action and debate and focus on innocent children growing up in war," Oslo-based filmmaker Lars Klevberg wrote in a statement shared on Twitter.
Klevberg told the BBC that the footage was shot in Malta earlier this year "on a set that was used for other famous movies like Troy and Gladiator."
"The little boy and girl are professional actors from Malta. The voices in the background are Syrian refugees living in Malta," he said.
But immediately after Klevberg revealed the film was a hoax, the debate shifted far from what he originally intended. Many viewers voiced outrage over the deception, and the backlash was vociferous on social media.
Prior to the revelation, the story had already been widely reported as real on a range of Western media sites, reigniting the debate on journalism ethics and standards, especially in conflict reporting.
Journalists have been among the loudest voices opposing the video, some saying that the filmmakers acted irresponsibly and have only served to bolster skepticism and doubt as to the veracity of similar videos, which are often the only access point to daily events in remote and dangerous conflict zones.
"There's more than enough footage from Syria that is genuine to not have to make fake incidents to make some contribution to a debate. The filmmakers obviously don't really understand or have any appreciation of its complexity," UK-based journalist Eliot Higgins told the Global Post.
Despite the negative comments, the film's director told BBC that he and the production crew are still "happy with the reaction."
"It created a debate," Klevberg said.
Over 191,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, including at least 8,800 children, according to UN figures.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields