Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I’ve personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors.
When false reports concern “unexplained” topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities.
You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called “Runaway Bride” who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many people–including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)–jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on… and continues today.
The Abduction of Alyssa Langille
On Sunday January 15, a 15-year-old Canadian girl named Alyssa Langille was abducted by two men in Mississauga, near Toronto. According to news reports, “A witness said two men jumped out of a silver van at St. Barbara Blvd. and Comiskey Cres. just after 1 p.m. on Sunday. They forced the girl into the van and were last seen heading south on St. Barbara towards Derry Rd., according to the witness.” The suspects were described as a “South Asian man around 24 years old, described as tall with a thin build, and wearing an orange turban with a grey sweater with cut off sleeves and a green shirt underneath. The second was simply described as a South Asian male.” Based on that information an Amber Alert was issued, and the news media told the public to be on the lookout for these abductors and their victim.
Exactly two weeks later in the neighboring province of Quebec, a man named Alexandre Bissonnette allegedly opened fire in a mosque, killing six people and wounding eight others in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a “terrorist attack on Muslims.”
Though the suspects in Langille’s abduction were not specifically identified as Muslim–Sikhs and other turban-wearing groups have of course been mistaken for Muslims–the South Asian nation of Indonesia has a high percentage of Muslims, and the implication was clear to Canadian audiences. In another layer of fear-fueling misinformation about minorities, Fox News falsely tweeted that the suspect in the attack was of North African heritage, specifically Moroccan. Fox News eventually removed the information after being asked to do so by Trudeau’s director of communications, Kate Purchase. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also made the same error.
As it turns out Alyssa Langille was not in fact abducted. Her father had called police after the girl’s sister found that Alyssa had placed clothes in her bed to make it appear as though she was still sleeping in it, but she had run away. Toronto police found Alyssa in Scarborough, a district of Toronto, unharmed.
It’s easy to see how Langille’s abduction would have hit a nerve, especially in Canada’s eastern provinces; as The New York Times noted, “right-wing extremism has long thrived in Canada among skinheads, white supremacists and others,” particularly in Quebec. The racist trope of the ethnic foreigner preying on young white women is particularly evocative; perhaps one of the best known cases involved Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a White woman. According to recent news reports, Till’s “accuser has recanted the most incendiary parts of her claims against him. Carolyn Bryant Donham told author Timothy B. Tyson that her long-ago allegations that Emmett grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her, ‘that part is not true.'” Indeed, defending the “honor” of White females is a longstanding theme in White nationalism.
Whether the (non)abduction of Langille partly inspired Bissonnette to attack the mosque is unknown at the moment, but it is almost certain that the social media-savvy extremist was aware that a dark-skinned turban-wearing man and his colleague were being sought in connection with the abduction–or worse–of the young blonde woman.
There is a further ironic twist to this story. Usually it is the “victim” who falsely accuses racial or ethnic minorities of their kidnapping or assault–often because it lends crediblity to their claims and plays into widely accepted negative stereotypes about those groups. In this case it turns out the eyewitness who claimed to have seen Alyssa Langille abducted by a turban-wearing man in a van was Uzma Khan, described as “a 32-year-old woman from Mississauga” Ontario, who has now been charged with public mischief for her false report and is due in court later this month.
It’s not known why Khan made the false report–perhaps it was for attention, or she misunderstood something she saw–but her decision to specify that a fictional abductor resembled a popular image of Muslims may have had results she could not have predicted. False crime reports of any kind are not only a waste of police resources and divert attention from real victims, but they can also have real-world consequences.