A Facebook rumor about white vans is spreading fear across America

A recent string of unsubstantiated Facebook posts claiming white vans involved in kidnapping, sex trafficking, and selling body parts have spread fear across the country.

Posted: Dec 5, 2019 8:52 AM


Terrifying rumors initially propelled by Facebook's algorithms have sparked fears that men driving white vans are kidnapping women all across the United States for sex trafficking and to sell their body parts. While there is no evidence to suggest this is happening, much less on a national, coordinated scale, a series of viral Facebook posts created a domino effect that led to the mayor of a major American city issuing a warning based on the unsubstantiated claims.

The latest online-induced panic shows how viral Facebook posts can stoke paranoia and make people believe that spotting something as common as a white van, can be deemed suspicious and connected to a nationwide cabal.

"Don't park near a white van," Baltimore Mayor Bernard "Jack" Young said in a TV interview on Monday. "Make sure you keep your cellphone in case somebody tries to abduct you."

The mayor said he had not been told of the apparent threat by Baltimore Police but said it was "all over Facebook."

Matthew Jablow, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department, told CNN Business on Tuesday that while the department is aware of posts on social media it had not received "any reports of actual incidents."

Indeed, while there is no hard evidence of any such phenomenon in Baltimore, unconfirmed reports of suspicious white vans in Baltimore and other cities across the US have been shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook in recent weeks and have been seen by potentially millions of Facebook users. At least one person who drives a white van has reported being harassed for it as a result of the rumors.

Baltimore City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, co-chair of the Baltimore City Human Trafficking Collaborative, told CNN Business that he worried that the panic about white vans would distract from the wider issue of human trafficking.

"We need to make sure accurate information is out there especially because Baltimore is a hotbed of human trafficking in the country," Burnett added.

He said the rumors had spread mostly through Facebook, "which I think is sort of telling given the national conversation around Facebook's ability and inability to control the spread of inaccurate information on their platform."

In Georgia, police investigating reports of suspicious white vans have asked the public to call 911 rather than post on social media.

Going viral

Sightings of "suspicious" white vans in Baltimore have been reported on Facebook for years. For example, CNN Business found one 2016 post from a woman who warned there was a white van outside her home and that people should be careful because there was "a guy in a white van kidnapping kids."

Contacted by CNN Business Tuesday, the woman said she had no specific evidence to back up the claim but that she had heard it "plenty of times" and was only trying to warn her friends who have children.

While that posting barely received any attention, there has been a flurry of posts about white vans in Baltimore over the past month that have gone viral on Facebook and Instagram, which is also owned by Facebook.

On November 13th, Saundra Murray, a Baltimore resident, posted photos of a white van outside a gas station to Instagram. Murray said two men in the van would not stop staring at her while they were in the store. Murray told CNN Business she had seen the men in the store before she knew they were in a white van. She said she didn't report the incident to police "because I didn't have much information to report but I did want to make the [Instagram] post to let people know what is going on."

Murray said she had seen reports on social media of suspicious white vans but she thought people were exaggerating -- mysterious white vans are a "big thing in movies," she thought, and believed that might have added to the exaggeration.

However, after her experience, she now believes the men and the van are "part of a bigger story, I don't think they are two random guys."

Baltimore Police has received no reports of actual incidents.

Murray's post racked up more than 3,200 likes on Instagram. A few days later, on November 17, another woman in Baltimore posted screenshots of Murray's Instagram post to Facebook. That Facebook post had been shared more than 2,000 times by this Tuesday.

A separate Facebook post from another woman in Baltimore on November 18 that was shared more than 5,000 times showed a stock image of a white van and warned: "When you come out into the mall parking lot, and you see a van like this parked next to your car, DO NOT GO TO YOUR CAR."

The post claimed that sex traffickers had "these vans rigged where they lock from the outside, and, once inside, you can't get out."

But the posts were not only going viral in Baltimore. A Facebook post from a man in South Carolina on November 15 showed a photo of a white van with two external locks. The photo appeared to have been taken from Snapchat.

"IF U SEE ANY VANS LIKE THIS CALL 911 THIS IS UTILIZED FOR SEX TRAFFICKING," the Facebook post read.

The post was shared an extraordinary 151,000 times.

Beyond Facebook

To help tackle its misinformation problem, Facebook has hired third-party fact-checkers. On November 21, one of the company's partners, Lead Stories, ran a fact-check that said people don't need to be particularly concerned just because they spot a van with external locks.

Lead Stories pointed out that external locks on vans are commonly used by construction workers who keep expensive tools in their vehicles.

The fact-check has been applied to some Facebook posts about white vans, meaning Facebook users who try to view those posts will be alerted that the information is false.

But while that might help slow or stop the spread of such posts in the future, it can't undo the damage done or prevent the information from going elsewhere. On Tuesday, screenshots of the Facebook post were circulating through an email listserv for parents in a New York suburb, CNN Business learned.

The biggest concern, of course, isn't just fear-mongering on Facebook, but how it can spread to the real world. In Detroit, a home improvement specialist told local media in late November he was harassed for driving a white van after he said speculation about white vans went viral on Facebook in the city.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 113081

Reported Deaths: 3231
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds7823176
DeSoto676778
Harrison490283
Jackson439383
Rankin385986
Madison375793
Lee349079
Forrest298078
Jones285384
Washington253799
Lafayette244042
Lauderdale2398134
Lamar219038
Bolivar199477
Oktibbeha197654
Neshoba1820111
Lowndes175562
Panola167638
Leflore163287
Sunflower158849
Warren153255
Monroe146572
Pontotoc145219
Pike137256
Lincoln136856
Marshall136226
Copiah135736
Coahoma124036
Scott123829
Grenada120638
Yazoo119933
Simpson119549
Union116025
Leake113940
Holmes113760
Tate113639
Itawamba111325
Pearl River110559
Adams105243
Prentiss102919
Wayne99421
Alcorn96712
George95718
Covington94525
Marion93342
Tippah86521
Newton84927
Chickasaw83225
Winston82621
Tallahatchie82525
Tishomingo79741
Hancock78727
Attala78126
Clarke72750
Clay68421
Jasper67417
Walthall63327
Calhoun61812
Noxubee59617
Smith58516
Claiborne53416
Montgomery53123
Tunica52317
Yalobusha51314
Lawrence50414
Perry48423
Carroll46812
Greene45918
Stone45514
Amite42013
Humphreys41916
Quitman4176
Jefferson Davis40011
Webster36613
Wilkinson33120
Kemper32115
Benton3194
Sharkey28014
Jefferson27110
Franklin2373
Choctaw2036
Issaquena1064
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 154942

Reported Deaths: 2660
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson22720374
Mobile14405314
Tuscaloosa10066137
Montgomery9820196
Madison907894
Shelby715361
Lee646165
Baldwin644369
Marshall431048
Calhoun416059
Etowah412249
Morgan400033
Houston365532
DeKalb325428
Elmore312852
St. Clair283842
Limestone273630
Walker269993
Talladega259135
Cullman231024
Lauderdale212540
Jackson205515
Autauga202130
Franklin201731
Colbert193330
Russell19053
Blount187325
Dallas186027
Chilton182632
Escambia171428
Coffee16829
Covington166629
Dale163851
Chambers133043
Pike131313
Tallapoosa129587
Clarke127317
Marion105029
Butler99840
Barbour9969
Marengo98222
Winston90613
Geneva8447
Lawrence81131
Pickens81117
Randolph80514
Bibb80114
Hale74830
Cherokee72314
Clay72212
Lowndes70228
Henry6386
Bullock63717
Monroe63610
Washington62312
Crenshaw59830
Perry5816
Wilcox55912
Fayette55713
Conecuh55613
Cleburne5327
Macon53020
Sumter46821
Lamar4595
Choctaw38712
Greene34016
Coosa1993
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Broken Clouds
85° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 88°
Columbus
Scattered Clouds
85° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 89°
Oxford
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 82°
Starkville
Scattered Clouds
84° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 86°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather