Open up Facebook and be prepared to be accosted by fear. Moms across America are writing breathless accounts of how sex traffickers nearly snatched their children at Target/Ikea/the grocery.
One such mom posted: “A man came up to us (at Sam’s Club) and asked if the empty cart nearby was ours. ... He was an African American with a shaved head. ... It seemed like an innocent encounter.” Innocent, that is, until the mom and kids headed to Walmart and saw the guy again. He was “feverishly texting on his phone but not taking his eye off my daughter,” the mom wrote.
It could only mean one thing: “I have absolutely NO doubt that that man is a trafficker looking for young girls to steal and sell.”
And I have absolutely no doubt that she’s wrong. This is what security expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed a “movie-plot threat”—a narrative that looks suspiciously like what you’d see at the Cineplex. The more “movie plot” a situation seems the less likely it is to be real.
But it sells. A Facebook post by Diandra Toyos went viral after she said she and her kids were followed by two men at Ikea. “I had a bad feeling,” she wrote. Fortunately, she “managed to lose them.”
Which, frankly, is what one does at Ikea, even with people one is trying not to lose. Nonetheless, the post ricocheted through the media. CBS News told viewers that though experts found the scenario unlikely, “that doesn’t mean Toyos didn’t have reason to be concerned.”
Actually, it does. That’s exactly what it means.
When yet another post from another mom took off in Denver, local news outlets had to run stories reassuring parents that there had been no legitimate sex trafficking reports in the area. The Littleton Independent also informed people that an earlier story about a man kidnapping a child in front of the local library turned out to be about a guy moving a stroller out of the way so he could get to his car.
David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, says parents have always worried about their kids. But more and more, that primal fear “gets paired with the fact that we live in a very heterogeneous society, where we encounter lots of people whose behavior and motives we can’t read, we can’t identify with.” It’s a big case of fear of “the other.”
Finkelhor has not heard of a single case in which a child was taken from a parent in public and forced into the sex trade. Zero. That’s because actual traffickers build relationships with the young people they go on to exploit, usually troubled or runaway teens. No one is spiriting away 2-year-olds from Target.
These Facebook posts about fiends snatching innocent children are eerily reminiscent of a much older scare: a corrosive lie called blood libel, in which Jews during medieval times were said to be killing Christian children and using their blood to make matzo. The most famous blood libel of all, says medieval scholar Emily Rose, was the 1475 abduction and murder of a young Italian boy, Simon of Trent.
Simon was not the first such story, but his went viral thanks to a brand-new social medium: print. Posters and poems disseminated the allegations. Trent became a pilgrimage destination.
That’s all it took. Suddenly, people across the continent started claiming that a Christian child had been murdered by a Jew in their town, too. “Most of these kids didn’t even exist,” Rose says, “and if they did exist, they weren’t killed.” But that didn’t stop the stories from catching on. And the people repeating them were excited, because suddenly they were part of something big. A drama!
Today’s panicked moms probably don’t see themselves playing a role that goes back centuries. But the only thing new is the media they’re using to spread fear.