A New York Times editorial opposing child marriage shared a story about a forced marriage between an 11-year-old girl and 20-year-old man.
The story referenced in that opinion piece had taken place decades earlier, and a widely-shared image included with one version of that story depicted a YouTube "social experiment" from 2016 and not a forced child marriage.
On 29 May 2017, the web site Opposition Report published an item about an 11-year-old girl purportedly forced to marry the man who raped her in “Floridastan”:
Conservatives love using child marriages in the Muslim world as an excuse to hate. While the concept of a child marrying an older man is creepy, isn’t it strange that these same people have nothing to say about Christian child marriages in the United States?
On Friday, the New York Times published the heartbreaking story of Sherry Johnson. Johnson was raped by a 20-year-old member of her church and became pregnant in Florida and learned very quickly that Christianity can be very cruel to its adherents.
“It was forced on me,” she told the Times. See, authorities had begun sniffing around because she was pregnant with a 20-year-old’s child, so church official made the decision that the best way to avoid embarrassment was to marry her off to her rapist.
The story was accompanied by a photograph of a young girl alongside a much older man. That photograph was (predictably) interpreted by readers as representing the wedding described in the quoted New York Times opinion piece, leaving them with the impression that the events related in that piece had taken place in 2017:
When she was a scrawny 11-year-old, Sherry Johnson found out one day that she was about to be married to a 20-year-old member of her church who had raped her.
“It was forced on me,” she recalls. She had become pregnant, she says, and child welfare authorities were investigating — so her family and church officials decided the simplest way to avoid a messy criminal case was to organize a wedding.
“My mom asked me if I wanted to get married, and I said, ‘I don’t know, what is marriage, how do I act like a wife?’” Johnson remembers today, many years later. “She said, ‘Well, I guess you’re just going to get married.’”
That New York Times piece was interspersed with other tales of unwilling, underaged brides in the United States, many of whom grew up to become advocates for girls currently at risk of such abuse. But the article was prompted not by their stories, precisely, but rather by failed legislative action in New Jersey aimed at preventing marriages involving minors:
New Jersey lawmakers passed a bill that would make their state the first in the country to ban marriages of people under 18, but Gov. Chris Christie [in May 2017] blocked the legislation. New York legislators are considering a bill backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to raise the age to 17, from the current minimum, 14.
The photograph used by Opposition Report was unrelated to those events and originated with a prank or “social experiment” published to YouTube in 2016 in order to “raise awareness” of child marriage:
YouTube prankster Coby Persin is serious about raising awareness of child marriage.
So he set up a faux union between a 65-year-old man and 12-year-old girl in the most public of places, New York City’s Times Square, to see how people would react.
In the referenced clip, bystanders vociferously opposed the phony marriage:
Although there’s no reason to suspect Sherry Johnson fabricated her story (Times author Nicholas Kristof reported that he reviewed documentary evidence), the manner in which it was presented and later recycled as though it was current, rather than decades-old, was deeply misleading to social media readers.