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Cops Have Lost Control of Their Sex-Trafficking Panic, and It's Beautiful

Even the police can't control human-trafficking hysteria anymore, and it could backfire for them.

Cory Doctorow/FlickrCory Doctorow/FlickrBe still my little libertarian heart, there's just something beautiful about a cop-created moral panic slipping beyond their control.

For years, U.S. police have been using tall tales about an American "sex trafficking epidemic" to scare citizens into giving up civil liberties (or at least offering up the rights of sex workers and their clients) and go about the government's typical types of thuggery. But now the narrative is getting away from them. So sure are Americans (despite all evidence) that sophisticated criminals are waiting to snatch up our girls and women at every opportunity that people are now inventing sex-trafficking rings of their own...and berating police for not taking action.

The latest example comes from Glendale, WI, where local police had to fend off rumors that "girls as young as 12 are being snatched up from two local malls and sold into prostitution rings." Someone who said they had attended a banquet where "a Detective from [the Milwaukee Police Department] spoke" and told them "Mayfair Mall and Bayshore Town Center are very popular spots for human trafficking" posted the story on Facebook.

After the bit about girls being snatched up, they warned neighbors to "be careful letting your girls go out alone" and asked that "if you shop in or frequent these areas keep your eyes open, you could make a huge difference."

So what's going on here—someone with an activist or attention-seeking agenda? A well-meaning poster who garbled the story? A detective doing the usual hype with some local flair? Whatever the case, there's no truth to reports of trafficking-related abductions at the Bayshore Towne Center, according to local police. While "you should always remain aware of your surroundings, we have had no reports of this at Bayshore nor are we currently investigating anything related," the Glendale Police Department posted to Facebook.

The Town Center also denied any such activity. And "per review of the Wauwatosa Police crime reporting software now available, there is no data supporting human trafficking concerns at Mayfair Mall," according to the Historic East Tosa Community Association.

But rather than relief, commenters on the police post expressed skepticism. Some saw the whole thing as confirming what could take place, even if it hadn't yet. "Could happen here. Scary," one woman posted. "While I agree that scaring the public is never a good thing," wrote another, "human trafficking is very real and keeping an eye out in public spaces like this that are potential areas of activity is never a bad idea."

"Just because there have been no reports of this sort of thing at Bayshore, does not mean it is not happening," suggested yet another, asking police to "please investigate this as a possibility because it IS happening, and turning a blind eye does not save these young women."

Other commenters quibbled about the specifics of the imaginary story ("in fact, as young as 12, should read, 'of any age.' Don't know specifics about these locations, but children of both sexes-and all ages-are vulnerable. That is a fact").

Any posters who sided with the police (and reality) on this one were upbraided by the others for being obtuse.

"I frequent Bay Shore Mall and have not seen anything of that order when I was there ... I always feel safe and am treated with care," said one cheerful commenter. She was greeted with an admonition that "the problem [is] already there, ignoring it won't change that."

"Did anyone read the article? 'There have been no reports,'" noted someone on the local Fox story about it. Response: "You all should know it's all over and at any given time... Protect your kids and be aware."

It would be easy to chalk all this up to stereotypical suburban "soccer mom" fears, but their reactions reveal an effect that's all too typical in even the most rational: When confronted with credible evidence that contradicts our own understanding of a situation, we tend to double-down on our erroneous belief and (consciously or not) find ways to discredit the information or the messenger. Psychologists call these tendencies motivated reasoning or confirmation bias.

An Atlantic article on this effect mentions 1950s researcher Leon Festinger, who studied believers of doomsday prophet Dorothy Martin. These followers "believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn't show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong."

Sound familiar? Believers keep on believing in all sorts of things, from sex-trafficking epidemics to Russian masterminds "hacking" the U.S. election, Hillary Clinton's electability, or the idea that you can pray away the gay.

With U.S. officials hyping human-trafficking hysteria for years, it's no wonder that people believed them and began to let their imaginations wander. Perhaps not a bad thing, either. The more time police have to spend investigating and debunking totally bogus mall traffickers, the less time they can spend messing with adult sex workers under the guise of stopping sexual exploitation.

And the more times they're forced to quash parental fears by admitting that they've had no human-trafficking reports, the more it chips away at their simultaneous claim that human trafficking is happening "everywhere" and "all the time."

Diehards may never believe denials of imminent danger, but police might come to realize their false narrative isn't worth the hassle.

A few more recent examples:
The IKEA Child Sex Trafficking Story Is Fake News
Did You Hear About the Sex Traffickers Abducting Grown Women From Hobby Lobby?
Little Girl Asks Another Child for Candy, Mom Fears Sex-Trafficking Ring

Viral Human-Trafficking Rumor Hits Ionia County, Debunked by Police
Texas Mom's Paranoid Rant Spawns Viral Sex-Trafficking Rumor
Sex Trafficking Case Doesn't Imply Widespread Criminal Network, Police Chief Says
Police Address Facebook Rumor That Great Lakes Crossing is 'Hot Bed of Sex Trafficking'

Photo Credit: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

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  • Hugh Akston||

    I'm not that familiar with social media, but it seems to me that its only useful function is as a platform for amoral people to exploit gullible morons.

  • Crusty Juggler - lamertarian||

    I am not surprised that Hugh - like Reason - is condoning the systematic kidnapping and raping of our nation's greatest resource.

    If we can't protect our most vulnerable, what hope do we have?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    If you are not part of the solution that you are part of the problem!

  • Merl3noir||

    Or, fight fire with fire... so be the problem on steroids.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    "There's one born every minute, and two to take him." P.T. Barnum would have loved social media. He could have taken so much more.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    Sound familiar? Believers keep on believing in all sorts of things, from sex-trafficking epidemics to Russian masterminds "hacking" the U.S. election, Hillary Clinton's electability, or the idea that you can pray away the gay.

    Nice, ENB. Triggering both Tony and Mikey in the same paragraph? Yes, please.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    She's a master baiter, is ENB.

  • Crusty Juggler - lamertarian||

    In the time it took you to make your juvenile pun a young child has been kidnapped, and is now riding riding in the back of a panel van, having completed the first leg of it's long journey to Saudi Arabia, and a life of sexual slavery.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Saudi Arabia is so last year for sex slaves.

    Where is that island that Jeffrey Epstein let Bill Clinton hang out?

  • Crusty Juggler - lamertarian||

    First of all, Epstein just banged dirty, slutty prostitutes, and second, for that scummy behavior he was sentenced to spending nights in jail for a year, which I think is just about right.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Jealousy ill-becomes you.

  • Crusty Juggler - lamertarian||

    I can't believe Reason magazine is participating in another leftist, mainstream media cover-up. I am literally sobbing with rage right now. This magazine's politics have worsened over the years, but this is a new low. Are the cocktail parties that worthwhile?

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    For anyone interested as to how to avoid being a sexual trafficking victim, the best thing to do is to humanize yourself to your oppressor. This is also why we had to put those googly eyes on Crusty's fleshlight.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    We probably should have stopped after two eyes, but it's too late now.

  • Crusty Juggler - lamertarian||

    For anyone interested as to how to avoid being a sexual trafficking victim, the best thing to do is to humanize yourself to your oppressor. remain eternally vigilant. Everyone our children comes into contact with is a potential sex trafficker, so have your child fingerprinted, and if you can afford it insert a GPS tracker into their necks - that way you will know where they are at all times. Also, if they ever leave your home - and they shouldn't, they should be escorted by a trusted adult. Also - and most importantly - keep your head on a swivel; they are everywhere.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    And keep your child on a leash with a proper swivel to prevent entanglements. If you will be away for more than a minute, wrap them in bubble wrap and pre-emptively turn yourself in to CPS.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    Public schools are the biggest sex traffickers.

  • Rhywun||

    Too bad the police are still totally down with drug-trafficking hysteria.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    To police, there is not reason that there cannot be two hysterias that require their unique skill set- murder.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I hope you're not expecting police departments to learn a less or anything.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    ...learn a lesson. Goddamn.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You were partly right. Police are not going to learn a less or a more.

  • steedamike||

    I thought he said that they wouldn't EARN less, lol.

  • Wizard4169||

    Since I don't expect them to learn anything, they can't possibly learn less. Unless they learn something completely untrue, I suppose that could actually count as negative knowledge...

  • Robert||

    + too many people of all kinds are down w "addiction" hysteria, imputing it as something equally likely to happen to individuals in all life circumstances.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Whatever the case, there's no truth to reports of trafficking-related abductions at the Bayshore Towne Center, according to local police.

    Just what they would say if they were on it... /sarc

    police might come to realize their false narrative isn't worth the hassle.

    I won't hold my breathe. They've never admitted that WoD isn't worth the hassle, why would they admit that their new War on Prostitution isn't either? Besides, they just started this war.

  • ||

    They've never admitted that WoD isn't worth the hassle, why would they admit that their new War on Prostitution isn't either?

    It seems like we've already crossed the TOP MEN and "don't believe your lying eyes" threshold on this issue. If officers aren't paying attention to it, it's not *trafficking*, just plain old prostitution or child molestation or w/e. They'll tell you what's trafficking and what isn't.

  • Brian||

    We must be vigilant at all times.

    I'm pretty sure someone's thinking about taking me constantly.

  • Fred Zuccini||

    Already read once this morning that the Clinton Foundation is being investigated for sex trafficking in Haiti.

  • Karen24||

    Has anyone questioned the management of the nearest competing mall about the origins of this hoax?

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    As I read these articles on Reason and am heartily amused by the accompanying blogs, a question occurred to me.

    Are we the truly "woke" ones?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Duh.

  • OldMexican Blankety Blank||

    "[...] The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong."

    Sound[s] familiar?


    Yes, I point to you to that group of also true believers, the Angry Volcano God (a.k.a. Climatey Changey) worshipers. No amount of counter-evidence to, or even lack of evidence for their claims, ever diminishes their belief or reduces their calls to drop virgins inside the Volcano's fiery mouth to appease it.

  • Number 2||

    " 'While I agree that scaring the pubic is never a good thing,' wrote another,..."

    Truer words were never written.

  • Libertarian||

    If you dont scare the public, how will we ever have angry mobs? Think these things through, people!!

  • Number 2||

    I see they corrected the typo in the text. I had copied the original version of that sentence. Note the missing L .

  • pan fried wylie||

    Just Say No To Pubic Scarring

  • Wizard4169||

    "please investigate this as a possibility because it IS happening, and turning a blind eye does not save these young women."


    On the other hand, straight up losing your shit about false reports totally saves lives.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: Cops Have Lost Control of Their Sex-Trafficking Panic, and It's Beautiful

    "For years, U.S. police have been using tall-tales about an American "sex trafficking epidemic" to scare citizens into giving up civil liberties (or at least offering up the rights of sex workers and their clients) and go about the government's typical types of thuggery."

    Well, yeah.
    Eliminating everyone's rights always starts with a lie.
    How else are out ruling elitist filth going to enslave us without a manufactured crisis?

  • Libertarian||

    I'm reminded of the urban legend whispered to me 40 years ago: men were taking boys into the bathrooms at Disney World, castrating them, cutting their hair, and sneaking them home. Good times.

  • Bearded Spock||

    Heck, that's nothing compared to the Ritualistic Satanic Abuse scare of the late '80s/early '90s.

    There was one I read about where, according to the "victim" and her "supporters", mobs of Satan Worshipers would take her up a local canyon, tie her up, have an orgy, and top it off with a sacrifice of a newborn baby.

    Believe it or not, a reporter at the local paper gobbled the story up; it was quite the sensation for a few weeks. Of course the police found not a shred of evidence to support her claim. Didn't stop the True Believers from proclaiming the existence of an imminent Satanic threat to the community.

    The story fell apart when she started accusing the mayor, chief of police, local church leaders, prominent citizens, and virtually everyone who expressed the slightest degree of skepticism of taking part in the orgy/sacrifice or being part of The Satanic Conspiracy of Silence.

    It was awesome to watch the story implode and see the newspaper, for liability reasons, airbrush it in a fashion that would have made Stalin proud. Good times indeed.

  • Libertarian||

    I kinda have something to say here, but Melania's IQ has left me speechless.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    This is how Islam and Nazi Germany got started,

  • Libertarian||

    "Islamanazis"?

    "Nazi Llamas"?

  • Darr247||

    My sister-in-law has a friend whose cousin heard about someone being snatched from towne centre, so I call #FakeNews on the typical bureaucrats trying to sweep it all under the rug.

  • Robert||

    Why can't your s-i-l have one of those friends who makes big bucks working w Google, or some such?

  • buybuydandavis||

    "While I agree that scaring the public is never a good thing," wrote another, "human trafficking is very real and keeping an eye out in public spaces like this that are potential areas of activity is never a bad idea."

    False stories are good, as long as they serve the proper Narrative.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Be still my little libertarian heart, there's just something beautiful about a cop-created moral panic slipping beyond their control.

    You're just an anarchist!

    Hmmmm, that doesn't work so well around here.

  • thisbrucesmith||

    I can't believe none of you realize what could be happening here. What if the cops are IN ON IT?! OMG!!

    We'll need cops for the cops, and more cops on top of that. Eventually we'll have to take matters into our own hands. Just you watch: next they'll start banning torches and pitchforks! Heavens!

  • Bob2||

    We at the AMCA fully support an immediate tripling of police coverage at these locations to be implemented to the exception of all other except emergency duties until some offenders are caught. Thank you.
    The American Meth Cook Association

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