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Saturday, June 11, 2022

The White Van Scare

     Before the Internet we had the urban legend, scary myths spread by word of mouth. One such legend was called "The Hookman." This myth featured a young couple parked in a lover's lane. Over the car radio they hear that a homicidal lunatic with a hook for a hand had escaped from a local mental institution and was roaming the area's back roads. When the couple arrived home that night they discovered, dangling from one of the car door handles, a hook.

     In the Internet era the urban legend has been replaced by scarelore, a term that refers to vague terrifying news items published on social media, scary tales that have no basis in fact. Quite often scarelore stories involve shadowy men committing terrible crimes against helpless women and children.

     The scarelore that  made the rounds in 2019, mainly through Facebook, featured men in white commercial vans who patrol shopping center parking lots looking for young women to abduct. When the kidnappers saw a vulnerable young woman pull into the lot, they'd wait until she walked away from her car then park next to it. When she returned, these men would throw her into their van and drive off. The abducted women became sex slaves and were ultimately killed for their body parts.

     The spread of the white van myth was not good for drivers of white commercial vans of which there are a couple hundred thousand in circulation at any given time. At the height of the abduction scare many white van drivers were harassed by citizens or reported to the police. In November 2019 an innocent driver of a white van in a Memphis, Tennessee parking lot was shot to death by the police.

     Jack Young, the mayor of Baltimore, in a December 2019 television interview added credibility to the white van abduction hoax when he said this: "We're getting reports of some people in white vans trying to snatch up young girls for human sex trafficking and selling body parts. So, we have to be careful because there is so much evil going on, not just in the city of Baltimore, but around the country. Don't park near a white van and make sure you keep your cellphone in case somebody tries to attack you."

    Even for a politician this was a stupid thing to say. Shortly after Mayor Young raised the abduction alarm the chief of police of Baltimore came forward and told reporters that his department had received no reports of white van abductions. Moreover, a spokesperson for the FBI announced that there had been no reports of white van kidnappings nationwide.

     After the mayor helped spread the white van scarelore Facebook issued the following statement: "Posts with this [white van] claim have been rated as false by third party fact checkers and we are dramatically reducing their distribution. People who see these false posts on Facebook and share them, or have already shared them, will see a warning they're false."

1 comment:

  1. It’s reminiscent of the panic decades ago in Guatemala. I guess people can’t think straight when it comes to strangers killing kids. https://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/05/world/foreigners-attacked-in-guatemala.html