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Why Fake Kidnapping Stories Are Everywhere These Days
Welcome to the Kidnapping-Industrial Complex.
We are living in a golden age for kidnapping-related media. Right now, one of the most profitable movies of the year is ‘Sound of Freedom’, which is based on the highly falsified exploits of a dude named Tim Ballard who claims to rescue children from sex trafficking rings. Actual reporting on Tim’s work has shown that the kids he “frees” are often back on the street as soon as his camera team leaves town, and experts on trafficking will note that most victims are trafficked not by cartel-style gangs but by their parents or adult caretakers.
Fans of ‘Sound of Freedom’ will not be convinced by any of these facts. They love this movie because it furthers a myth conservative Christians want to believe. They want to believe this myth because it justifies the state of constant armed paranoia they advocate for everyone like them. You can find numerous examples of this, here’s one from a Twitter blue-check with a tenuous grasp on spelling:
And here’s an older example, from a 2017 viral Facebook post by a 19-year-old woman who saw a random flannel shirt on the windshield of her car and assumed, with zero evidence, that it had been staged there by a kidnapper looking to distract her. Multiple commenters pointed out that this claim had been debunked by Snopes, but that didn’t stop Jesse Dmellow from bragging, “I keep my pistol in grabbing distance everywhere I go”.
One can pass a pleasurable afternoon reading through a lengthy Snopes archive of debunked ‘kidnapping’ disinformation. The purported techniques vary, from ‘kidnappers are putting zip ties on windshield wipers and door handles’ to ‘kidnappers are leaving cheese on cars’, all so they can jump out and grab you while you’re distracted removing [whatever]. The most unhinged version of this myth I’ve found is that kidnappers leave trash under your wheel so they can roll out from under your car and slash your Achilles tendon with a knife when you lean down to pick it up. The TikTok video this is from has 7 million views.
It’s all very silly, and might be amusing if not for the fact that on June 16th, 2023, Phoebe Howard Copas shot and killed her Uber driver, Daniel Piedra Garcia, because she thought he was trying to traffick her to Juarez. Copas, a 48-year-old mother and grandmother from Tompkinsville, Kentucky, had flown to El Paso to visit her boyfriend. Since being arrested for murder, she’s told an unlikely story that Garcia told her he was taking her to “a fair” in Juarez.
The police have noted in their report that Copas never called emergency services to report feeling in danger before shooting a man in the back of the head. They also report that she texted photos of a bleeding Garcia to her boyfriend before calling 911.
In the immediate wake of the killing I started scraping the Internet for what traces of Phoebe’s social media I could find. All I got was a Facebook, which she updated semi-regularly. It did not contain anything I would call a smoking gun, no shared clips of videos full of unhinged kidnapping warnings, no super aggressive videos shilling self-defense weaponry or training. Copas had the online profile of an extremely normal person.
One update from March of 2022 is a video of her dancing with her grandchild, with the text: “Tatums birthday dance. He loves dancing with his Gigi. Love him.” The first few comments below that are anodyne posts from friends and family, all a year old. “So cute”, “so adorable”, “happy belated birthday great nephew”. Etc.
And then, in the wake of the murder, strangers found Phoebe’s wall and added their own comments. Jackson Gaebler posted the reply, presumably directed to her family, “Your kin is a murderer”. It got more likes than any post her relatives had made on her wall in the last year.
Below him, written right after the news dropped, was a different post, where someone told one of Copas’s relatives to, “Visit her in prison while she is alive lol, El Paso another type of jail, she will get it. Lol.”
My assumption is that he meant to say “El Paso has another type of jail”, and was a reference to the fact that my former home state does the death penalty. Similar comments now festoon every public post she made. Rosie Quintanilla points out that Copas was a home designer, and notes gleefully “she’ll have to decorate her new home cell with scrap maybe using toilet paper.” Then she realizes that Phoebe listed her job as a social worker and types, in the same comment, “I take it back, she was a caseworker.”
The fact that Rosie chose to gloat on the Facebook wall of a stranger whose paranoid fear of a kidnapping led her to commit murder AND THEN chose to engage in real-time fact checking on that post LEAVING IN the error with the correction is, just, fascinating to me. You could write a graduate thesis unraveling the thought process behind that post and what it says about the United States.
But, alas, we must now move on.
All we know for sure about Phoebe Copas is she arrived in El Paso armed and believing she had to be ready to defend her life at a moment’s notice in one of the safest cities in the country. So great was her paranoia that she shot a man in the back of the head while he was driving her down the freeway. Her lawyer has claimed she was afraid because of a deluge of news content about kidnappings of Americans in Juarez, across the border from El Paso.
Americans are very rarely kidnapped and forced across the border. When this does happen, it is nearly always targeted, someone with a family or business connection that puts them in specific danger because of who they are. Criminal gangs do not randomly kidnap Americans in Target parking lots or from airports.
The reason why there’s so much trafficking focused content is not because it’s a real threat for most people, but because having the word “kidnapping” in the title of a video or article is an insanely reliable way to go viral. Kidnapping content does gangbusters on social media. This means it winds up absolutely everywhere, often pushed by right-wing media that sees it as a convenient way to angry up the base and spread fear about the border. So now we all get to live in a world where a certain segment of the population treats parking lots like downtown Fallujah circa 2006.
I first grew concerned about the virality of kidnapping content while I was checking TikTok to see if Phoebe Copas had ever been a user. I found no evidence of this, but I did find a video from “The Official Daddy Darkness”, who has over 800,000 followers and almost exclusively posts upsetting AI videos in which the CGI head of a criminal relates the details of their crime.
I can’t in good conscience recommend you watch this, but it lives here if you choose to put that evil on yourself. Finding this account brought me to one of the lowest emotional points of my entire life, because in addition to unsettling AI Phoebe Copas, Daddy Darkness gives us shit like the Highland Park Mass Shooter explaining his motivation to empty an AR-15 on a crowd in an off-putting AI-generated voice.
A lot has been written about the potential for profound toxicity within the True Crime fandom. There’s nothing inherently wrong about wanting to know more about terrible crimes (my own work veers more than a little in that direction) but I think we can all agree that doing stuff like offering autopsy photos of a murdered 11-year-old to your Patreon supporters crosses several thousand lines. I’m not sure where I put Daddy Darkness’s videos on the scatter plot between “In Cold Blood” and “capitalizing on a child autopsy” but I wish I hadn’t found this TikTok.
There’s a danger, of course, in being an old man on the Internet yelling about creepy shit posted by the kids these days on their newfangled app. So I should take some time here to note a couple of things. The first is that- as I noted earlier- paranoid kidnapping content started going viral on Facebook years before TikTok even existed. A lot of modern TikTok kidnapping content is actually repurposed from other types of media, like this clip of a NewsNation report from April 2023 about an American woman kidnapped in Mexico late last year.
The actual story here has a happy ending, the victim was recently freed and her dog got away safely. The TikTok account spreading the clip, t.vmoments, which has more than 244k followers, is distinctly less interested in happy endings. It mostly posts clips from news stories with on-screen text summaries. Popular titles include, “Children Abducted from Berkley Home”, “What we know about the woman who vanished on Alabama highway” and “9 Month-Old Girl Kidnapped”.
This is quite normal, of course. “If it bleeds, it leads” has long been a foundational principle of local news. In media the currency is eyeballs and nothing gets eyeballs on screen like stories about little kids and young women getting kidnapped. The twist TikTok has brought to this very old tactic is bringing people the ability to excise all content that isn’t related to kidnappings or serial killers or mass shootings. Through careful curation, today’s savvy viewer can ingest a filling diet of random violence from all around the country.
The thing I respect a little about t.v.moments is that their content is, at least, all based on finding and spreading real stories. Sure, collecting nothing but bad news together in one hyperfeed probably contributes to an errant and toxic belief that our society is more dangerous than ever. But at least it’s just warping perspective, not reality itself.
Anyway, here’s a cool video I found from goofsquad1003 with more than 147,000 likes.
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It’s footage a completely different streamer posted from Japan, of a guy noticing a young woman being followed by a dude who was clearly uncomfortably hassling her. He comes to her aid and helps her shake off the weirdo. It’s a nice story about a positive end to a creepy situation most women find themselves in over and over again.
But our boy goofsquad1003 interprets it differently, alleging based on nothing that this guy was not a normal creep, but a human trafficker:
It’s easy to see why goofsquad would want to do this. His account has a middling following, less than 40,000 followers, and most of his posts get just a few thousand views. But thanks to the words “human trafficking”, this video got more than 1.6 million views.
There are numerous other examples of this trend. In one now-deleted video I found user “conspiracyandshid”, 17.6k followers, claims one video from a popular Indonesian dancer’s TikTok contains secret evidence of trafficking. Her evidence is “they do not look like they are having fun” and “they post [videos] everyday”.
One gets the feeling that some purveyors of kidnapping conspiracy theories are genuinely cracked people. But many others have made a calculated choice to use kidnapping and trafficking stories to game the algorithm. Here we see a repurposed clip from a made-for-TV movie about a real kidnapping victim, Kara Robinson, titled as if it is an actual guide to escaping a kidnapping. The creepy AI voiceover is worth a shout-out here, it just refers to Kara as “a girl”, which makes your skin crawl after a little while.
The account in question only posts clips of scenes from movies with titles like “Jailbreak completed with just a spoon” (that one’s from Shawshank Redemption). Most of these posts have 10-40,000 views, but this kidnapping video has been viewed nearly 4 million times to date.
I could provide more examples but I think my case has been made: stories about “kidnapping” and “human trafficking” offer a shortcut to virality. I am far from the first person to recognize this, and a great deal of modern kidnapping disinfo comes from people consciously lying about kidnapping attempts to get followers.
The clearest example of this from my research is a 2021 Tiktok video posted by a user named “Mimi”. In it she claims to have found cheese stuck to her car, and when she and her mom tried to remove it a van filled with masked smoking people drove by suspiciously. This, she claims, is evidence she narrowly avoided kidnappers. The text accompanying the video contains a plea, “PLEASE share this, women are literally being taken in every possible way now”.
I cannot guarantee you Mimi is a liar, and not someone who just had her brain melted by Online. But I can take you on a stroll through her other content to see which hypothesis seems more likely.
Her oldest video is from the start of the pandemic, she’s in a car looking at a friend who is sitting in the car next to her. It’s a pretty normal snapshot of the loneliness that came with that period. There are videos where she tries to do her make-up or dances or lifts weights but these only get between a few hundred and at most, 2-3k views.
Several videos, with text like “athletes try dancing” or with her and a friend singing along to popular music, seem like attempts to go viral. Her account is mostly half-hearted attempts to build a following as an online influencer. Before the kidnapping video, her most successful post had 22k views. The cheese kidnapping post has more than 446k views.
Mimi’s post was duly picked up by the iHeartRadio “Daily News” podcast, which published an article version of the story with the title “If You Find A Slice Of Cheese On Your Car – You Might Be In Danger”. There’s no attempt to even pretend to provide journalistic context on this one, just the line:
“It might sound silly, but a TikTok user named Mimi is very serious about her experience.”
Local radio stations frequently spread these stories, helping to bring attention and followers to the people who start the chain. Another example of this comes from February 2021, when local Omaha radio station KFAB posted an article on their website titled, “If you find a water bottle on your car, drive away- you might be in danger.”
The title there is an almost perfect blend of the science of SEO-friendly click-friendly titling and old school chain message tactics. The article warned readers that unspecified “abductors” were leaving water bottles on cars to mark their targets:
“This is a tactic used by traffickers and kidnappers to get you to exit your vehicle and take whatever is on top of the car off. If you have this happen and something is on the hood of your car when you come back to it, leave it there, drive away it'll fall off on its own.”
I probably don’t need to tell you that there’s no evidence for any of this. Snopes notes that the origin for this version of the story was a Tiktok video, posted by, “…by a woman who said she had a random encounter with a stranger acting oddly around her car in a mall parking lot, later found a water bottle on the hood of her vehicle, and posited (based on nothing) that these two things were somehow related.”
Again, you see how this all works. Stories are cooked up by bad actors on Facebook or TikTok, usually, who want to bring themselves followers or perhaps have some more nefarious reason to drum up fear and paranoia. Then the laziest actors in our media ecosystem grab ahold, churning out quick articles with no fact checking that have a chance of trending well and thus tricking people into clicking.
I found yet another example of one of these articles on Distractify. It seems to have been inspired by a TikTok video posted by a woman named Erin Dawn, who recorded a four-minute video about coming back from a shopping trip to find a sheet of paper on her car door she claims was soaked in a chemical that injured her.
Of course, Erin didn’t provide photographic evidence of this, but she was good enough to film a re-creation, which she narrated over:
"When I saw it I just picked it up with my fingernails...and I tossed it out. I didn't touch the napkin but guess what, I still opened the door with my fingertips. I asked my husband, 'Did you put a napkin in my door?' and he was like, 'No,' so immediately I started looking for hand sanitizer..."
This would all be so much easier to just dismiss with a chuckle if not for the fact that Phoebe Copas shot Daniel Garcia in the back of the head. There are other consequences, too. The growing availability of AI tools has made what are called “virtual kidnapping” scams much more common. In short, a scammer clones the voice of your loved one (probably thanks to YouTube or TikTok videos, or podcasts) then calls you. For a split second you hear your child or your boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse or parent scream for help, then an angry man gets on the phone and tells you to wire him money or he will fucking kill them.
This exact scenario happened to the mother of a teenaged girl in Arizona earlier this year. She picked up the phone and heard 15-year-old daughter, who sounded distraught and handed the phone over to a man, who told her, “You call the police, you call anybody, I’m going to pop her so full of drugs. I’m going to have my way with her and I’m going to drop her off in Mexico.”
Mexico and vaguely-described knock-out drugs are ever-present in fake kidnapping stories. Both of those things play into other present cultural panics (over the border and fentanyl) that Americans have been suitably prepared to react towards with constant paranoia. And then the constant bombardment of kidnapping stories in every form of media solidifies the premise of these scams as worth taking seriously.
Thankfully in this case the girl’s mom was in public, surrounded by other people who called both 911 and her husband for her. They were able to confirm immediately that no one had been kidnapped. The story has a happy ending. But it illustrates how much more advanced scams have become. The mother later told local news:
“It was completely her voice. It was her inflection. It was the way she would have cried,” she said. “I never doubted for one second it was her. That’s the freaky part that really got me to my core.”
She’s absolutely right. Phoebe Copas responded to the bombardment of fear we call modern life online in a vicious, unjustified way. But any reasonable person, put in this mom’s place, could be convinced to wire money to a “kidnapper”.
I do worry that my focus on TikTok in this article might lead people to believe either that the app is uniquely toxic or that I have gone full Boomer in my frustration over the kids these days and their chosen media. So let me close out with something I think represents a healthy, and relevant, use of the app. It’s a video posted by “citylivingsoutherngirl” in December of 2022, with 46.8k shares and nearly 400,000 likes.
She was targeted by a virtual kidnapping scam, where an AI version of her mom’s voice cried for help before a scammer threatened to “kill this bitch” if not paid promptly. The creator of this video frames it as a Scam Alert. It’s the only video of its type on her page, and with more than 4.2 million views the most popular content she’s posted by far.
I suppose it’s possible that this, too, was cooked up to draw in followers. If so, it’s at least warned people about a real threat. There are no human traffickers sticking cheese on cars or waiting underneath to slash your Achilles tendon. But every single person reading this will be targeted by scams, with increasing frequency, on every device they use and on every day of the rest of their lives. The information here is good, it might protect some people from falling for a similar scam.
Right now, that’s about as good as it gets.
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