A back-to-school themed Facebook warning shared on September 5 2019 (archived here) declared that all school-age children must avoid all school bus stops because of an increased threat of human trafficking:
Against a pastel background, black text decreed:
Let NO Child walk to or Stand at a Bus Stop Alone for the rest of the school year human trafficking is at an all-time high
As we frequently note in the many fact checks we’ve done on this genre of viral text-generated image-based Facebook post, content spreading in this fashion is both easy to spread and a fantastic vector for falsehoods, scaremongering, and misinformation or disinformation — all of which Facebook excels in spreading. In this format, posts lack any supporting citations or news articles, but their easily shareable form means they are shared nevertheless.
Readers here are faced with a seemingly serious warning ripped directly from the news — that “human trafficking” is a serious problem and, given the prominence and prevalence of such stories, that they are “at an all-time high” does not seem particularly difficult to believe. If you are already concerned, standing at school bus stops alone seems to definitively posed a risk for young children.
Although the post lacked any meaningful proof, it still generated engagement and attracted friend tags with comments suggesting that it might be true:
Still think I’m paranoid?!????????
We checked news and law enforcement bulletins for any sweeping advisements that school bus stops had been identified as hotbeds of abduction or any indication that human trafficking is at an all-time high, but came up empty handed. Abduction is an exhaustive topic in the realm of baseless rumors and urban legends, routinely inspiring social media moral panics about malls, schools, and other purported strategies undertaken by kidnappers.
And if you didn’t look closely, it might seem that legitimate connections between school bus stops and human trafficking existed. A January 2019 article in trade site School Transportation News, which was predicated on the abduction of 13-year-old Wisconsin girl Jayme Closs, began:
A child abduction case in Wisconsin that recently made international headlines has refocused attention on school bus stop safety. The role that bus drivers may be able to play in better keeping their students proactively safer, is a core part of the incident and aspects to evaluate.
That lead-in indicated that a link between school bus stops and the kidnapping case be made at some point. A subsequent section titled “What does this have to do with student transportation?” made mention of a passing connection to bus stops, before consulting an expert who disagreed with any potential link:
As has been widely reported, court documents stated that [the abductor] said he was driving to work one morning and stopped behind a school bus on Highway 8. It was then that he said he first saw [the victim] as she boarded her school bus.
“The defendant stated he had no idea who she was nor did he know who lived at the house or how many people lived at the house. The defendant stated, when he saw [Closs], he knew that was the girl he was going to take,” according to the criminal complaint.
An expert in the field of child sexual predators told School Transportation News that Patterson’s act was not, in fact, a random bus stop incident, but instead something that Patterson could have done before.
In that passage, the site draws a line between Jayme Closs being spotted at a bus stop and the kidnapping, but an expert in child exploitation disputed the suggestion and no aspect of that alleged sighting in any way differentiated bus stops from any other public location. More to the point, no safety measures involving buses could have prevented the kidnapping, and being at a bus stop made Jayme no less safe than being in any other public area.
A January 2019 Reuters piece titled “Kidnapped children make headlines, but abduction is rare in U.S.” was also premised on Jayme Closs’s October 2018 abduction in which her parents were murdered and she was taken from her home. (She was later found alive.) The article delved into the relative rarity of abduction by a stranger:
On average, fewer than 350 people under the age of 21 have been abducted by strangers in the United States per year since 2010, the FBI says. From 2010 through 2017, the most recent data available, the number has ranged from a low of 303 in 2016 to a high of 384 in 2011 with no clear directional trend.
Hundreds of thousands of juveniles are reported missing to the Federal Bureau of Investigation each year. The circumstances of the disappearance is only recorded about half the time, but in cases where they are, only 0.1 percent are reported as having been abducted by a stranger. The vast majority, typically more than 95 percent, ran away.
The FBI data does not record how many reported abductions are confirmed as actual kidnappings.
“It doesn’t happen very often, but they’re certainly the cases that capture our attention because they strike at our worst fears,” Robert Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), said in a telephone interview.
In noting that there was “no clear directional thread,” we may reasonably infer that abduction is not actually “at an all-time high.” But a more striking statistic mentioned is that only 0.1 percent of cases involve stranger abduction. In 95 percent of cases, minors reported missing “ran away.” According to earlier statistics cited by Reuters, 99.8 percent of children reported missing are recovered alive.
So what of the remaining 4.9 percent of abductions? The article states that a non-custodial parent is the most common kidnapper:
In cases where children are abducted, it is far more common for a non-custodial parent to be the kidnapper: This was reported 2,359 times in 2017, the FBI data showed.
As to whether that 0.1 percent of kidnappings classed as stranger abduction, National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) data didn’t specify bus stops as a particular threat. Further, many kidnappings do not look in real life as they might in movies or television shows:
About 32 percent of those abducted were taken from a place where they were living or staying (their home, a relative’s home, a homeless shelter, etc.). Another 32 percent were abducted at the kidnapper’s home. The final 36 percent of victims were taken from a public place of some sort. Most cases featured only one victim (81 percent) and only 18 percent of cases involved a child taken from a group of two or more children. In nearly two-thirds of the abductions, the victims voluntarily went with kidnappers at first.
One factor in the popularity of kidnapping panics involves the typical trajectory of investigations in a time when most people get news almost immediately after events occur, forming their opinions long before the facts of the cases are clear. After media reports of a possible kidnapping spread in March 2019 in Ontario, Canada, police later determined the child was in the custody of her father; law enforcement later learned that the father was simply picking up his daughter from school, as he was permitted to do so.
An August 2019 news article in Oklahoma provided an excellent object lesson in how initial reports are spread and updates rarely seen. Both the original and amended versions of that article appeared on a single page, and authorities later determined an alleged rash of attempted kidnappings were the result of mistaken identity and courteous behavior.
Human trafficking is a hot-button topic on social media, due in part to widespread ignorance about what is a legitimate and misunderstood problem. Posts heavily relying on emojis and exclamation points appear with regularity on Facebook, as do panics about Uber-related sex trafficking and a Snapchat trafficking ring (both of which have always been false.) In an earlier fact check, we noted:
[E]xperts in trafficking routinely decry such claims about the issue. Experts regularly underscore the fact that sex trafficking is rarely (if ever) a “random” crime of sudden abduction; instead, traffickers tend to lure vulnerable teens over time[.]
Rationality advocate and author of Free Range Kids Lenore Skenazy has long been addressing the popularity of such claims on social media. In March 2017, Skenazy addressed a flurry of sex-trafficking Facebook panics:
What the heck is going on, America? This “My kids were about to be trafficked, I just KNOW it” post is so shockingly similar to last week’s, “My kids were about to be trafficked, I just KNOW it” post that it feels…creepy. A lot creepier than being at Ikea where a couple of men glance at my kids.
The reader who sent me this link asked if I thought there might be some “validity” to it, to which I must respond: No. In fact, I think it’s crazy. What, two men are going to grab two or three kids, all under age 7, IN PUBLIC, in a camera-filled IKEA, with the MOM and the GRANDMA right there, not to mention a zillion other fans of Swedish furnishings?
Can we please PLEASE take a deep breath and realize how insanely unlikely that is? How we don’t need to be “warned” about this? How NOTHING HAPPENED!
You can TELL nothing happened, because the whole thing was described as an “incident.” And Lenore’s #1 Rule of Reporting is: When something is called an “incident,” it’s because nothing happened. In fact, my alternate headline for this post was:
POINTLESSLY TERRIFIED MOM URGES OTHER MOMS TO BE POINTLESSLY TERRIFIED
In June 2018, Skenazy revisited the topic of phony human trafficking scares and the media’s endless tolerance for them. In that commentary, she highlighted the darker side of moral panics and the irony that they themselves can be riskier to communities than the supposed dangers themselves. After noting that “security expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed [such rumors a] ‘movie-plot threat’ — a narrative that looks suspiciously like what you’d see at the Cineplex,” she explained just how old and corrosive safety panics actually are:
[David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center] 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.
A quick browse of our pages on sex trafficking, human trafficking, Facebook warning, and parental panic tags illustrates the ubiquity and illegitimacy of warnings like the post above. No credible information indicates that school bus stops expose children to an “all-time high” risk of human trafficking, nor does anything substantiate the claim that crimes of that nature have increased in frequency. While “better safe than sorry” is the excuse routinely used to spread safety panics, as is often the case, spreading bad information inhibits the circulation of actual, legitimate, and helpful safety advice.