Dangers of Rumors: Faked Walmart ‘Abduction’ Goes Viral

June 25, 2018

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It was a scary if common social media warning, an example of what folklorists call “scarelore.” On June 9, 2018, Joshua Hatley, a Kansas man, posted a message on Facebook with information claiming a woman attempted to abduct his child at a local Walmart. The post, since deleted, read:

“I’m posting this as a warning to my friends and family around here who have children. Please keep an eye on them. Kristie took the boys to Walmart with her sister a few hours ago. They were looking at some books together, and as soon as Kristie turned for a second to get another book to look at, a lady made a move to grab Asher, who was looking at another book. Her sister saw this and moved Asher away. The woman took off, and she followed. There was another female and a male with her, and they left in the van in the following picture. Please guys… let this be your only wake-up call. Watch your babies when you are in public. We live 9 miles away from I-70, a major drug and sex trafficking corridor. If someone snatches your child, they will probably be gone before anyone can do anything about it. We are counting our blessings tonight. Please count yours, and hold your kids dear. This happened at 7 pm on the dot, at the Walmart in Manhattan Kansas. And this information has all been reported to authorities.”

The post was accompanied by a photo of an African-American woman he identified as trying to abduct his son, along with the van she drove, with her license plate clearly visible.

Contrary to the post, Riley County police apparently first heard about the incident not from the panicked mother or father but instead from concerned citizens who shared the urgent warning on Facebook over 11,000 times and wanting to know if their children were also in danger. Police investigated the attempted abduction and reviewed the store’s surveillance camera footage but were unable to find any attempted abduction at all. Detectives showed the footage to Hatley, who eventually admitted that he hadn’t personally witnessed the incident—that it was reported to him by his sister-in-law. As more and more questions arose, police became concerned about the woman photographed and publicly accused on social media of trying to abduct a child.

To his credit, Hatley later issued a statement:

“Several days ago my wife and her sister were shopping with our two sons at Walmart. In the course of their shopping, my sister in law claimed there was an incident involving another woman attempting to abduct our youngest child. As a result of the circumstances at the time, we believed this to be true, as my wife did not see the events unfold with her own eyes. This was shared as a warning post on Facebook, and quickly went viral. We have remained on top of this issue, and after conferring with detectives at RCPD and viewing security footage from the event, we have determined there was never any real danger to our sons, or the general public, and that our relative misrepresented what truly happened to us, and to management.

The woman involved, and her family, are completely innocent and we would like to apologize to them. We believed there was real danger present, and did what we thought was necessary to help mitigate the issue. We are truly sorry for any damage that may have been caused by this event, and we hope you understand that there was no malicious or ill intent behind our actions; we only wished to make sure children were safe from a perceived threat. We have spoken with an attorney and learned that we are unable to pursue anything legally, and that the victim must do this. If you choose to do so, we will fully support you in accumulating any evidence we have access to, and we are incredibly sorry for anything negative that has happened as a result of this.”

Several questions remain, including why Hatley’s relative would falsely accuse another woman of trying to abduct the child. If an attempted abduction had actually taken place and the family genuinely “believed there was real danger present, and did what we thought was necessary to help mitigate the issue,” it seems likely they would have called the police immediately (as Hatley claimed was done in his post), or at the very least contacted the store’s security team on the spot instead of following the woman out to her vehicle, snapping a photo, and posting a warning online (via Joshua Hatley’s account) a few hours later.

This is a classic example of rumormongering, where thousands of well-intentioned people shared information that have no reason to doubt (who would make up a story about a child’s attempted abduction?), posted by a man who presents the information as factual, first-hand information, but which upon further investigation was told to him by his wife, who (apparently) heard it from her sister. In this game of Telephone, a friend of a friend passes along information that no one along the way questions or has reason to doubt. It’s only when investigation begins into the truth of the situation that the story is revealed to be false. The fact that Hatley (falsely) claimed that the authorities had been notified added to the credibility of his story.

It’s not clear whether this incident was motivated by racism, a grudge (perhaps the other female shopper slighted her for some reason), for attention (a heroic aunt chasing a gang of would-be child abductors out of a store is quite dramatic), or if it was a sincere misunderstanding, but the incident follows a string of recent high-profile cases in which white women have called police on African-Americans doing innocuous things in public spaces, including at Starbucks, at cookouts, and even napping in the common area of a university. In previous articles and blogs I have examined how false reports often target minority groups.

Hatley’s warning was only one of many fake warnings about abductions at Walmarts and other stores circulating on social media in recent weeks, though his was among the more specific. Hatley and his family are fortunate that some vigilante did not track down the woman and attack her, as rumors of child endangerment can trigger violence (as happened, for example, with stories about a D.C.-area pizza place linked to Hillary Clinton and child trafficking). As is always the case, only a small portion of people who originally shared the false claim saw the follow-up post clarifying the situation and debunking the danger. This unfortunately and inevitably results in the “stranger danger” fears reaching further than the reassuring, correct information.

The police department issued a statement that read in part, “RCPD would like to assure the citizens of Riley County that we take all incidents like this seriously. We heard from several concerned citizens questioning the situation and our response. After a thorough investigation, it was determined the claims made were unsubstantiated and the attempted abduction did not occur. The woman pictured in the post did not commit any crimes and was wrongly labeled as a suspect by the poster. If you ever experience a situation where you feel you or your child is in danger, please call 911 immediately. Child abductions and attempts should be reported directly to police. Sharing stories on social media that are not verified can cause undue hardship for the people labeled as suspects who may have done nothing wrong.”