It’s worth being skeptical of any sensationalist claims you see on social media. And it’s essential to be skeptical of unsourced, sensationalist claims you see on social media when you’re the mayor of a major American city. Unfortunately, Baltimore mayor Bernard “Jack” Young was not skeptical enough when he warned citizens about a potential organ harvester on the loose in his city—based on “reports” circulating on Facebook.
“We’re getting reports of somebody in a white van trying to snatch up young girls for human trafficking and for selling body parts, I’m told,” Young said to local news station WBAL on Monday, during an interview in which he was asked a question about carjackings. “Don’t park near a white van, make sure you look at your surroundings, and make sure you keep your cell phone in case somebody tries to abduct you and call 911 right away.” When reporter Vanessa Herring asked Young if the police were the ones who told him about the instances of kidnapping, trafficking, and organ harvesting, he pointed to social media as his source. The Baltimore Police Department told the station they were also aware of the social media buzz, but lacked “any reports of actual incidents.” The mayor’s office later clarified his statement, calling it a “general comment” rather than any indication of a specific, present danger.
It’s very likely that no actual incidents of organ harvesting and human trafficking have been reported to police because instances of both crimes are relatively rare. In fact, the frequency of both human trafficking and organ harvesting in the United States has historically been exaggerated, by media outlets and authorities alike. Numerous reports have shown that human trafficking rates are generally unreliable. Fears about human trafficking, and sex trafficking in particular, were weaponized against sex workers in 2018, when Congress passed the SESTA/FOSTA package. Ostensibly designed to help victims of sex trafficking, the package severely limited sex workers’ ability to use websites like Backpage to find and communicate with clients, endangering them further by removing their ability to screen clients and work autonomously.
A Twitter thread from @yourewrongabout (the podcast where journalists Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes dissect moral panics of the past and present on their podcast) pointed out that there’s actually never been a confirmed case of organ harvesting in the U.S.—at least, not in the snatched-off-the-streets sense that Young invoked. The only case of “organ harvesting” that resulted in criminal charges involved a man who “paid Israelis to fly to the U.S. and have their organs removed, then charged Americans to get them implanted,” according to a 2011 press release from the FBI.
The big takeaway here is that when you see something wild on Facebook, employ caution before you share anything you can’t verify—especially if you’re the mayor of a major American city talking to the press.
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