What are the facts behind claims of a child-snatching panic on social media?
There’s evidence to suggest that some of these reported cases may be genuine attempts to abduct children, and are being investigated and taken seriously by law enforcement. It goes without saying that any report of children being abducted or trafficked is concerning and should be treated seriously.
However, there is evidence that some of these claims are false, and the frequency of attempted abductions may be exaggerated.
Multiple police forces across England have issued statements saying they believe there is currently no increased threat to children, nor that there’s an indication of gangs working to abduct children.
Following reports of cases in Worcester, West Mercia Police said on 28 September: “To date, despite the good intent of the members of the public reporting, none of these suspicious activities have transpired into criminal activity. There are just two unlinked reports that we are still investigating to establish the full facts and details of any activity criminal or otherwise.”
Essex Police said on 23 September that they could not establish a link between various reports of suspicious behaviour.
Bedfordshire Police said on 21 September that while it has received reports of suspicious behaviour towards children and stepped up its visibility around local schools, it added: “there is a lot of rumour and speculation on social media, with additional incidents being discussed that haven’t been reported to the police.”
Leighton Buzzard Community Policing team stated on Facebook on 20 September that they’ve seen false reports of abductions on social media. One post alleging child abductions in Goodwood, South Africa was shared widely in the UK after some apparently confused the location with Goodwood in Sussex, England. There is a clue in the post’s use of “R500,00”, which is South African currency.
This claim was first circulated last year despite the new post suggesting this was a recent event.
The rise in posts about missing children and child abduction could be tied to the rise in interest in the UK in the QAnon movement. There are many online groups in the UK that claim to combat child trafficking while sharing dubious theories aligned with the US QAnon movement. Many of the posts use the #SaveOurChildren hashtag.
As we said in this article on missing children statistics, the concern over the number of children who go missing each year is sometimes misinterpreted as children who are trafficked or abducted. Most cases of children who go missing are resolved quickly and without harm.
Geoff Newiss, of Action Against Abduction, said that his group, which monitors media and police reporting of abduction, had not noticed a recent rise in media reports on child abduction and attempted abduction.
Newiss told Full Fact that he estimated that about 40% of all abductions or attempts involved strangers approaching children, while the rest were either cases of grooming or family members taking children abroad.