An August 28 2020 Facebook post claiming authorities in Georgia found 39 missing children in a double wide trailer in Georgia went massively viral, apparently by pondering why it was not the biggest story in the United States:
That post racked up an astonishing one million shares in just three days, and it read:
How is finding 39 missing children in a double wide trailer in Georgia NOT the biggest news story in America?
In that version, “the biggest story in America” was replaced with “on the planet,” and Facebook tacked a “false information” label to the bottom of the claim:
Can someone – anyone – explain to me why finding 39 missing KIDS in a double wide trailer in Georgia not the biggest news story on the planet ??
As the posts also demonstrate, the nearly identical post with a million shares bore no such label — despite the lesser iteration receiving only 3.5 percent as many shares as the first version.
Unfortunately, a cursory Google search might have led sharers to believe concurrent news reporting validated the claim. On August 29 2020, CNN.com ran an article (“US Marshals find 39 missing children in Georgia during ‘Operation Not Forgotten'”), which began:
Authorities have found 39 missing children in Georgia during a two-week effort to rescue endangered minors [in August 2020].
The US Marshals Service Missing Child Unit led the search, dubbed “Operation Not Forgotten.” It collaborated with the agency’s Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and state and local agencies
The operation resulted in the rescue of 26 children and safe location of 13 others, US Marshals said in a news release on [August 27 2020].
“The US Marshals Service is fully committed to assisting federal, state, and local agencies with locating and recovering endangered missing children, in addition to their primary fugitive apprehension mission,” US Marshals Service Director Donald Washington said in a statement. “The message to missing children and their families is that we will never stop looking for you.”
An August 27 2020 tweet by @FBIAtlanta offered similar information:
Acting Special Agent in Charge, Phil Wislar attends a press conference with our partners @USMarshalsHQ announcing the recovery of 39 missing children in Georgia during "Operation Not Forgotten". Thank you to all our partners involved!https://t.co/CtnXnmbLXW pic.twitter.com/yMC4TIAVKO
— FBI Atlanta (@FBIAtlanta) August 27, 2020
Authorities provided little detail about the location of the various minors recovered during Operation Not Forgotten, likely because of the nature of the crimes. A press release issued by the US Marshals Service on August 27 2020 only said:
The U.S. Marshals Service Missing Child Unit, in conjunction with the agency’s Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and Georgia state and local agencies, led a two-week operation in August in Atlanta and Macon, Georgia, to rescue endangered missing children.
“Operation Not Forgotten” resulted in the rescue of 26 children, the safe location of 13 children and the arrest of nine criminal associates. Additionally, investigators cleared 26 arrest warrants and filed additional charges for alleged crimes related to sex trafficking, parental kidnapping, registered sex offender violations, drugs and weapons possession, and custodial interference. The 26 warrants cleared included 19 arrest warrants for a total of nine individuals arrested, some of whom had multiple warrants.
“The U.S. Marshals Service is fully committed to assisting federal, state, and local agencies with locating and recovering endangered missing children, in addition to their primary fugitive apprehension mission,” said Director of the Marshals Service Donald Washington. “The message to missing children and their families is that we will never stop looking for you.”
These missing children were considered to be some of the most at-risk and challenging recovery cases in the area, based on indications of high-risk factors such as victimization of child sex trafficking, child exploitation, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and medical or mental health conditions. Other children were located at the request of law enforcement to ensure their wellbeing. USMS investigators were able to confirm each child’s location in person and assure their safety and welfare.
Trafficking was mentioned, as were instances of “parental kidnapping, registered sex offender violations, drugs and weapons possession, and custodial interference,” many of which were crimes involving disputed custody. Nowhere in the press release was a single location mentioned (the purported double-wide trailer), and it did not appear the total of 26 children rescued and 13 located safe (totaling 39) hewed to any single location.
An August 31 2020 fact check from Nashville’s WKRN (“Fact check: 39 missing children not found in Georgia trailer”) addressed the claims, but did not really go beyond the content of the press release:
Over the weekend [of August 29 and 30 2020], you may have seen posts on Facebook asking why the story of 39 missing children found in a double-wide trailer in Georgia wasn’t being covered by the media.
Plain and simple: because it didn’t happen that way.
Last week [ending August 30 2020], the U.S. Marshals announced they rescued 26 children and located 13 others in a 2-week operation dubbed “Operation Not Forgotten.” Those children were found in various locations across the state — not inside a trailer.
An August 29 2020 fact check by LeadStories.com further noted that the news was widely reported across national and international news organizations:
The rescue of the children in “Operation Not Forgotten” made national news.
Fox News covered the story, as did CNN, ABC News, CBS News, MSN, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and the British website the Daily Mail.
Screengrabs show the story on both Fox News and CNN.
It is not clear where the idea that more than three dozen children were found in one single location — a double wide trailer in Georgia — originated, but it was not reported in any of that coverage, nor was it mentioned by various law enforcement agencies collaborating on Operation Not Forgotten.
It is very clear that the virality of the claims was innately tied to the QAnon-spawned interest in child trafficking. In July 2020, a viral rumor alleged that retailer Wayfair was “selling” children in overpriced cabinets, a claim that appeared to catalyze later coronavirus-related trafficking rumors:
Amid a massive surge of interest in trafficking, the claim that 39 missing children were found in a double wide trailer in Georgia became incredibly widespread on Facebook — and it was not true. On August 27 2020, authorities disclosed that Operation Not Forgotten led to “the rescue of 26 children, the safe location of 13 children and the arrest of nine criminal associates” in a two-week-long span. In total, 39 endangered minors were recovered or deemed safe — some of whom were sought due to custodial interference or parental kidnapping. Although the number was obtained from the press release (likely to give the disinformation a veneer of truth for those who did an online search for the story), the rest of the claim — that 39 children were rescued from one single double-wide trailer in Georgia — was false. We have therefore rated this story Not True.