A mother falsely accused a man of trying to steal her child. Is social media to blame?

“We seem to be living in a time when false accusations are becoming more and more prevalent,” the attorney for Mohamed Fathy Hussein Zayan told the media last week. Police released him and prosecutors took steps to expunge his arrest after discovering that the woman who accused him of attempted child abduction made up the story. But why? The Washington Post wonders if social media and its skewed incentives for victimhood and bravado might be to blame:

Adams’ attempt at social-media stardom ran afoul of another modern technological marvel … wall-to-wall surveillance systems:

According to court records obtained by the Herald-Dispatch, Adams initially told police that a man who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent had tried to drag her daughter out of the store by her hair. In a written statement, she claimed that she had pulled out her 9mm Smith & Wesson Shield from its leather holster and pointed it at him, ready to open fire. Zayan had rushed out of the store, she said. She hurried out, too, only to later spot him coming toward her again as she walked through the mall.

But security cameras captured no evidence that Zayan had interacted with Adams or her children at all, and officials said that none of the seven Old Navy employees who were inside the store at the time witnessed the alarming scenario that she had described to police. According to the criminal complaint, surveillance footage showed that Adams calmly exited the store about 15 minutes after she first arrived. Zayan left about 35 seconds later, walking in the opposite direction and never looking in her direction.

But why make the complaint in the first place? The Post’s Antonia Noori Farzan blames social media, and in particular Facebook, for an environment where thinly sourced scare stories go viral and create incentives for people to indulge in them. Farzan picks up on a comment made by the detective working the case:

While Adams’s motive for allegedly making up a story about a stranger remains unclear, Barboursville Police Detective Greg Lucas told the paper on Thursday that false rumors about attempted abductions on social media could have played a role. …

Stories in which a parent claims to have narrowly averted an attempted abduction in a public place like Target or the mall have a tendency to go viral on Facebook, attracting thousands of encouraging comments, Reason’s Lenore Skenazy noted on Sunday. Typically, they include impassioned warnings about sex trafficking rings, but little to no proof of any wrongdoing or suspicious behavior that would corroborate such claims.

Social panics have been with us since the Salem witch hunt provided us with its ghastly and enduring metaphor, Skenazy wrote in her Reason piece. The difference now is the thrill of immediate adulation and celebrity that fabulists get from contributing to it:

Inevitably, the mom congratulates herself on having had the wherewithal to figure out what was going on just in time, and bravely thwart the heinous crime by, uh, staring the guys down. Then the mom usually says something like, “if it happened to me it could happen to you,” without reminding readers that in fact, nothing happened. No one grabbed a kid. No one was sex-trafficked. (The head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, David Finkelhor, says he knows of zero cases of a child kidnapped from a parent in public and sex trafficked.) It’s all in the moms’ heads.

Yet they get thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of approving shares and comments on social media.

Here’s one story. Here’s another, and another, and anotherHere’s one that went mega-viral a few years back. You get the idea. It’s a panic, with a twist: adulation.

The mom ends up the hero of the non-event, basking in comments like thank you for sharing this, and so glad you are safe and, you are such a strong, conscientious mama.

It’s easy to blame social media for the phenomenon … as long as you don’t acknowledge the long history of social panics in this country without them. Salem is the prime example, but the 1980s had its “satanic child abuse rings” social panic that resulted in the horror of the McMartin Preschool trials and other such prosecutions. We just saw a mini-version of the same thing with the allegations of a supposed Brett Kavanaugh rape-ring conspiracy in high school around the same time. Both of those were social panics driven by traditional media rather than social media. Those and others like them (the Red Scare, the Anarchist Scare, arguably Russia-collusion, etc) get their energy from the conviction that abuses are taking place and therefore action is more incumbent than investigation, and that allegation has to be “believed” rather than tested out of a sense of a broader justice.

Social media might make the problem worse, but it doesn’t create social panics. That comes from human nature, and it’s why we have due process in place to prevent mob justice. Unfortunately, it might also be why the plague of surveillance cameras might actually be a necessity for public life from now on.