Were mothers always this paranoid? Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

August 22, 2023   6 mins

Why did Phoebe Copas shoot her Uber driver? The 48-year-old got into a car driven by Daniel Piedra Garcia on June 16 thinking she was heading to El Paso in Texas. But when she saw a sign reading “Juárez, Mexico” — which lies on the other side of the border — she pulled a handgun from her bag and shot Piedra in the head. He died several days later. Copas later told the police she panicked when she thought she was being abducted.

It wasn’t long after that the disappearance of 25-year-old Alabaman Carlee Russell became an internet sensation. Russell had called 911 to report that she was helping a toddler she had found wandering along the side of a highway. But when officers arrived at the scene, Russell and the child were nowhere to be found. Instead, they found her wig, phone and car. Sparking a 49-hour police search, Russell then turned up at her parents’ home saying she had been blindfolded, kidnapped and forced into a vehicle, where she could hear a baby crying. She claimed she had been held in a home where a woman fed her cheese and crackers, but that she had managed to escape.

In a statement from her lawyer nine days later, Russell admitted that the entire story had been fabricated. Police reported that they had found some “very strange” searches on her phone, including “how to take money from a register without being caught” and “the movie Taken” — in which Liam Neeson tracks down a gang that has kidnapped his daughter in order to sell her into sexual servitude.

Days after Russell’s deceit was revealed, Californian “momfluencer” Katie Sorensen was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Her crime had been to falsely report, in social media videos that had gone viral two years earlier, that a Hispanic couple who “weren’t clean-cut individuals” had attempted to kidnap her two children in a suburban parking lot.

This collection of bizarre and sad stories point to a strange phenomenon. Awareness of human trafficking has curdled to such an extent that an increasing number of women think it feasible that they or their children could be snatched off the streets. Exacerbating their fears, Sound of Freedom was released in cinemas at around the same time Russell came clean. It tells the story of Tim Ballard and his foundation, Operation Underground Railroad, which purports to have rescued around 4,000 children from traffickers and has found a receptive audience.

Earlier this year, a Pew survey on American parenting found that 28% of parents of children under 18 — that figure rising to 35% of mothers — were extremely or very worried about their kids being kidnapped or abducted. The fear ranked third on the list of concerns, behind mental health issues and bullying, and above getting shot, pregnant or addicted to drugs. It appears that America’s long history of stranger danger has been supercharged by very modern forces.

The period between 1970 and 2000 is known as the “golden age of serial murder”, as the birth of the interstate highway system meant unprecedented numbers of people moved to urban and suburban centres. The resulting loss of community and greater anonymity is thought to be behind the dramatic increase in murders and abductions, with children and young women overwhelmingly the victims.

In the same era, a newly empowered generation of women entered the workforce en masse — which required them to outsource the care of their children to strangers. This contributed to the “daycare panic” of the Eighties — more commonly known as the “satanic panic” — in which thousands of unsubstantiated cases of “ritual satanic abuse” of children were reported around the country. Most of the alleged perpetrators were childcare workers, despite the fact that fewer than 1% of abuses have been found to take place in those settings. This anxiety suggests that America wasn’t ready to accept women leaving their children in the care of others.

While the number of serial killers in the US has decreased decade by decade, the fear remains stubborn. Urban legends about abductions have been around forever, but the internet has made them more widespread. Hoaxes about kidnappings are now clickbait staples on social media, and often find their way into local media. The online fact-checking website Snopes has a database of kidnapping hoaxes dating back to the Nineties, featuring reports of everything from a hook-handed psycho targeting teens making out in parked cars, to attempted abductions of kids from amusement parks being thwarted because the kidnappers forgot to change the child’s shoes.

This is not to say that horrific events don’t happen. When they do, they legitimise the fears behind some of the wilder notions. In 2002, for instance, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at knifepoint from her home by an itinerant preacher and held captive for nine months before being rescued. Smart has since become an activist who has testified in Congress, addressed conferences and become a film producer turning the stories of famous abductees into daytime television staples. In other words, tragic as it is, her story has had an outsize impact on America’s cultural consciousness.

And where there is fear, there are those waiting to exploit it. The anti-human trafficking cause, while virtuous on its surface, has become a lucrative business, both for groups who exist to raise awareness for it, and for influencer-entrepreneurs.”There is a willingness for a lot of nonprofits to say whatever they need to say to get donations,” says law professor Bridget Carr at the University of Michigan’s Human Trafficking Clinic. More often than not, these organisations are geared towards awareness and training, and not working in the actual field with genuine victims. As Carr notes, “many in the anti-trafficking movement are always willing to use sex trafficking as a synonym for human trafficking”.

Anti-trafficking organisations played a large part in promoting the myth that, each year, the Super Bowl is the largest human trafficking event in the world. As hundreds of thousands of people descend on the host city, the story goes, so too do pimps, prostitutes and unwitting victims. Researchers found that, between 2010 and 2016, 76% of US print media reported a link between the Super Bowl and trafficking for sexual exploitation; the story had also been picked up by outlets such as CNN and Reuters — even though there is no definitive data behind it, and it has been repeatedly debunked.

While media and societal shifts laid the foundations for the abduction panic, the advent of the pandemic brought such issues into the mainstream. Conspiracy was in the air, and lockdowns meant that many turned to online communities for company. In real life, people masking on the streets were suddenly viewed as unrecognisable, suspicious and potentially dangerous.

It was in this atmosphere that a wannabe rapper, model and cryptocurrency enthusiast Scotty Rojas, aka Scotty the Kid, became radicalised by QAnon. On Instagram, Rojas developed the social media movement #SaveOurChildren, which promised to tackle “the real pandemic”, citing the false statistic that 800,000 children go missing in the United States each year — the equivalent of around 2,000 a day.

Taken up by a broad coalition of people — from wellness influencers to a former high-flying PR executive who went viral for destroying a display of face masks to raise the alarm about elite paedophile rings — the #SaveOurChildren movement began holding mass rallies around the nation. Though they existed in the name of child protection, they quickly became a way to protest against lockdowns and looming vaccine mandates, as well as progressive values in general, safetyism in particular and, on top of everything else, the validity of sex work. This “conspirituality” coalition had been building for some time. But as #SaveOurChildren grew in popularity, many who jumped on board were simply concerned parents who were absorbing disinformation via social media.

And yet, no matter how well-intentioned, online scare campaigns certainly weren’t addressing the real issues behind child sex trafficking, which ultimately require more robust welfare and state intervention. Overwhelmingly, trafficking victims, particularly children, are preyed upon by a close family member, or someone they know and trust. As Bridget Carr told me, during her many years working to advocate for children, she’s “represented hundreds and hundreds of victims and consulted on many more cases, and never, not one time in my case work has a child been snatched by a stranger. Not one time.”

Sensational tales do well on social media, with facts trailing far behind. Katie Sorensen was a failing influencer until her video went viral. As police investigated her claims, she appeared in news bulletins, repeating her story. On TikTok alone, videos tagged “abduction warnings signs” have 245.7 million views.

As with most social media ephemera, the energy behind the #SaveOurChildren movement has since shifted. Hoaxes about women being abducted outside Target stores are currently racking up tens of millions of TikTok views. In a climate where many have terrified themselves into believing that child abductions are happening all around them, it’s not much of a leap to believe women will be snatched too. The #MeToo movement, though it did an enormous amount of good, also led to a heightened sense of vulnerability among women, who were often already fixated on urban legends of abductions.

Behind the abduction panic is an even wider problem, then, than the legitimate crisis of global human trafficking. It is a product of the social isolation of modern America, which was accelerated by the pandemic. As we work from home, have our entertainment beamed to our couches and have food delivered to us, everyday interactions with strangers are becoming rarer and rarer. In turn, we’re becoming increasingly suspicious of everything and everyone. As with many of modern life’s ills, the way out of this new fear may just be spending more time in the real world and less time online.

Elle Hardy is a freelance journalist who’s reported from North Korea and the former Soviet Union. She is the author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World.