Why a lack of data and the spread of false kidnapping stories are not helping children

2018-10-30 07:12
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In a society grappling with high levels of violence against women and children, parents understandably want to take reports of child kidnappings seriously. But experts say these claims are often untrue, and there is no credible data on child kidnapping.

This spread of misinformation, fuelled by social media and false news reports, is not helping children, experts say.

On October 12, a woman tweeted:

 The tweet got over 100 retweets, and predictably had parents on social media in a flat spin.

Researcher and author Nechama Brodie saw the tweet and spoke to the venue in question. She said the story just seemed too outlandish to be true, and, like many similar stories that regularly do the rounds on social media, it was.

In November 2017, a viral WhatsApp message claimed a woman had been drugged and kidnapped in a Pretoria Mall. Police later said the message was a hoax, and complained that precious resources were wasted trying to verify it.

Media reporting does not match reality 

In January, a Facebook post claiming that a child is kidnapped every 30 seconds went viral. Africa Check did the research, and debunked the claim. The fact-checking website pointed out that if true, it would mean that over a million children went missing every year. But only 996 children were reported missing to the police in 2016, Africa Check reported.

That Facebook post was shared over 3 000 times.

According to Brodie, who is currently researching how the media reports on crime, it is not just social media spreading fake news. While the reasons may not be malicious, traditional media is guilty, too.

"Across crime categories, media reporting on crime does not, anywhere in the world, match the reality. The media will report on specific cases depending on how many stories there are that day, whether or not there's space in the paper, what other crime stories there are that day, etc. Crimes involving women and children tend to get more attention, especially crimes against vulnerable children. You could call it a well-intended but misdirected nurturing instinct," she says.

In September, Eastern Cape Premier Phumulo Masualle raised concerns over child kidnappings. His spokesperson, Sizwe Kupelo, was quoted by the Daily Dispatch saying that there had been four "child abductions" in Whittlesea. He said there had also been a suspected case of child trafficking in the area, hence the premier's concern.

Two days later, the Eastern Cape police said the Whittlesea case was actually from 2016. The Dispatch ran a comment piece pointing out the spokesperson's error, and warned that government institutions "should not create unnecessary panic".  

Increased interest in stories

The next day, the paper reported on panic that had resulted from false reports of kidnapping. Parents reportedly rushed to local schools to check that their children were safe, and principals reported being inundated with phone calls from frantic parents.

On the same day that the Dispatch printed the correction, three national news websites carried the story about the Whittlesea "abductions" without carrying the Hawks' correction.

This is not to say there is nothing to be worried about, but experts have cautioned about a lack of data on the subject.

At a conference on kidnapping and trafficking hosted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on Friday, advocate Rasigie Bhika, deputy director for public prosecutions in Gauteng, said there appeared to be an increased interest in kidnappings and human trafficking recently, in general.

But she said it was not clear whether this was because kidnappings really were increasing, or whether people were just paying more attention now. Laws against trafficking are only a few years old.

Lieutenant Colonel Parmanand Jagwa, Gauteng provincial coordinator for illegal migration at the Hawks, said at the conference that, on the whole, trafficking in general is prevalent in the country.

Police statistics

It is a crime that has previously been neglected by law enforcement, he said, and witnesses are reluctant to come forward.

He explained that people are often trafficked from rural areas to urban centres, where they are drugged, and often sexually exploited. Trafficking has overtaken the illicit gun trade globally as one of the most lucrative types of organised crime, he added.

Clearly, there is cause for concern as far as trafficking is concerned. But there are no figures related to child kidnappings specifically, warns ISS researcher Lizette Lancaster. She says this is primarily because the released police crime statistics do not state the age of kidnapping victims.

There has, however, been an increase in kidnappings overall in the last ten years – of about 115%. The reasons for the increase are not clear, she says, and could be attributed to the overall pattern of increased crime levels, murders and assaults.

She also points out that "abduction" has a separate legal definition and while it is often conflated with kidnapping, it is counted separately in the police's crime statistics.

According to Bhika, the legal definition of kidnapping is "unlawfully or intentionally depriving a person of their freedom of movement or, in the case of a minor, depriving a parent or recognised guardian of their control over their child".

Bad policy

Abduction is defined as "unlawfully taking an unmarried minor out of the control of his or her custodian (without the custodian's consent) with the intention of enabling someone to marry or have sexual intercourse with that minor".

Bhika told the conference that while kidnapping and abduction can form part of trafficking, smuggling is separately defined. The difference is freedom of choice, she said: kidnapping is based on exploitation; smuggling is not.

Kidnapping also includes child marriage or forced marriage.

The terms are often used interchangeably by the media and the public. But the definitions matter because when the issues are conflated, and the numbers are hyped, false panic is created.

Using anecdotes instead of data can result in bad policy, says Brodie.

A prime example of this, she says, was the department of home affairs' 2014 decision to require parents travelling with minors to present unabridged birth certificates at ports of entry. The policy is now being scrapped, but experts have estimated that the toll on tourism was high.

'We cannot be paralysed by our fear'

The policy was put in place apparently to stop child trafficking.

"Even at that time, and it's still the case as far as I know, there was no evidence that South Africa was experiencing an increase in child trafficking, or that we were a hotbed of child trafficking at all. There were a handful of documented cases every year. This is not to say that it doesn't happen, because we understand that many crimes don't actually get reported to the police," Brodie says.

According to Lancaster, a sample of the South African Police Service's data showed that about 27% of kidnapping cases are the result of "anger, jealousy, debt, controlling behaviour" – a large number of these are related to child visitation disputes. About 14% of cases were related to robberies.

About 22% of the cases were motivated by rape or sexual assault, but Lancaster says "it should be stressed again" that this sample includes adults and child victims.

It's a scary number. But, says Lancaster: "We cannot be paralysed by our fear. The first step is we have to know what we are dealing with."

It is clear that trafficking, and kidnapping, should concern parents. But it is not helpful for the media to spread inaccurate information, says Brodie. 

"It creates fear and panic. It stops us from paying attention to the real problem. The media will spend so much time warning you about strangers, and they won't warn you against the real threat to children: their immediate family. Children are at most risk of being sexually or physically abused by people who are most close to them.

"If the media is not covering that, when children do come forward and say, 'it was my uncle or it was my mom', we are less likely to believe them. It creates a loop of misinformation that doesn't help children at all."

Read more on:    crime  |  youth  |  abductions

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