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Are we scared of our own shadow?

We have all seen the posts on social media.

Typically, they involve somebody at a large retail store – a Target, or a Wal-Mart, or an Ikea – that is being “followed” throughout the store by somebody that they believe means them harm.

Harm, most of the time, means that the person doing the following is a “human trafficker” that they are absolutely, 100 percent certain intends to grab them and throw them into a waiting van in the parking lot the moment they have a clear opportunity.

And when these stories circulate there are people that will doubt the veracity contained within, while a whole bunch of people will chime in with the same, tired response: “better safe than sorry.”

We have all seen this play out more than once. And this past week, somebody once again thrust Manteca into the category of places where “human traffickers” are waiting to strike by posting a story that was written on a cell phone’s internal notetaking app and posted on social media to presumably scare the hell out of anybody who came across it.

Because the post wasn’t shared by the person who “made” it initially, there was no way for the armchair sleuths to ask questions and figure out whether there was any truth to the allegations. The post did specifically mention Manteca, so I guess we can chalk that one up as a win – at least it wasn’t the modern equivalent of a chain letter circulated devoid of any real clues or context to make people fear their own shadows.

But I must say, I don’t buy the story.

When this happened almost two years ago – at Wal-Mart this time – it turned out that the person who was photographed and tagged all over social media as somebody preparing to perpetrate a horrific crime was in fact simply shopping at the store.

After the story blew up, and the man’s photograph was shared hundreds of times and viewed by thousands and thousands of people – so much so, in fact, that it actually made its way back to him, in Stockton, and he voluntarily came into the Manteca Police Department to clear his name – people went so far as to advocate modern day lynch mobs.

Local investigators pulled the surveillance tape from the store, reviewed it, and announced that they didn’t see anything that was cause for alarm.

In short, there was no “there” there. That may have called off the dogs temporarily, but it didn’t do anything to take away the fact that this man’s picture was plastered all over the internet as some kind of perverted kidnapper – all for something that turned out not to be what it was billed as.

But “better safe than sorry,” right?

My chief complaint with these stories, which almost never pan out the way they are initially advertised, is that human trafficking is a very real issue in the world, and by making people afraid of these invisible boogeymen waiting to snatch people in crowded, well-lit, surveilled retail locations, they’re not focusing on the sorts of signs that can actually help somebody caught up in these sorts of situations.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are less than 120 children that are abducted by strangers in a given year. And even that number – which, I admit, is too high, but quite infinitesimal when compared against the roughly 74 million children in the country – isn’t completely accurate, because there are some of those cases where links to the family have later been established.

But there are people, some of them children, that are trafficked for economic and sexual exploitation, and in almost all of those cases, the person who forces them into bondage is somebody that they either know or have been befriended by in some capacity.

By not focusing on the signs commonly associated with this sort of horrific practice and instead focusing our energy on improbable things like people who scout random strangers in camera-filled retail locations, we are missing the mark.

As somebody who has children, I’m fully aware that evil exists in this world, and that there are people out there that if presented with the opportunity, would do them harm. I’m not hopelessly naïve. But I also know that between 2010 and 2014, an average off 11 children every week died in motor vehicle accidents, and I don’t see people talking about how we need to keep a closer eye on our cars because “you never know.”

In this day and age of social media, a Facebook post can ruin somebody’s life in a matter of hours. The authorities may have corrected the record on the matter of the man in Wal-Mart, but not everybody sees those updates – and in that situation, there were people who were advocating violence against him.

What would have happened if that guy came back to the store to pick something up, randomly, and a vigilante saw him there before the police were able to clarify what their investigation uncovered? What was embarrassing, and perhaps life-shattering, suddenly becomes potentially deadly. Are we going to hold the people who make the posts that may induce violence unnecessarily accountable for that?

This past week there were a lot of people in Manteca that were suddenly looking for an Indian male in his 50s because somebody wanted to click the share button without doing any research. To my knowledge, the Manteca Police were never contacted in this case, and there was no indication that the person contacted store security when they felt uncomfortable.

While it’s entirely possible that what was shared could have in fact happened – it’s not out of the realm of possibility – there have been far too many of these things disproven for it to hold any water. And that is truly, truly sad.

My only hope is that this modern version of the “Satanic panic” doesn’t get some innocent person needlessly injured because somebody wants to be a hero.

Maybe it’s time to stop being scared of our own shadow.


To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.