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New Internet Phenomenon: women pretending to have been kidnapped

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 12:45 IST

A strange new phenomenon appears to be taking over the internet.

First, there was a Twitter story. A woman, in a 148-tweet narrative, shared her experiences with body trafficking and the sex trade in Florida. Replete with pimps, an international criminal, blow jobs, trafficking and $$$.

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It told a gripping tale.

The twitter story went viral; the woman who shared it became an overnight phenomenon.

Missy Elliot tweeted to her letting her know that the story had moved her. And @_zolarmoon, the twitter handle run by a certain Aziah King, won the public attention she sought.

At the time, there was no way to ascertain if the story was at all authentic. But Aziah managed to provoke a lot of discussion about illegal trafficking, both online and in the news.

Except eventually, she was outed by those on the internet intrigued enough to corroborate the names of the criminals she listed. It was revealed that her story probably wasn't true.

Here's what's really surprising: this did nothing to hurt King's credibility, or at least her following. Aziah King now has 104,000 followers on Twitter, and is considered the mother of modern day social media pulp-fiction.

Yes, that's now a thing.

Onward to kidnappings

Allaray Roo posted a video on Youtube called Storytime: How I almost got kidnapped twice.

Roo seems to use the almost with a fair degree of artistic liberty. While she begins by promising a heartbreaking tale of kidnapping and escape, her story really is just about the time she went to a mall and a possibly autistic man asked her where she lived. That mundane video received three hundred thousand views. It even merited a sequel. "How I almost got Kidnapped a third time" is a video about when someone who looked "like the pedophile in Family Guy" spoke to seven-year-old Roo about his toys.

This sequel received 224,000 views.

This is possibly as textbook a case of clickbait as one can find. A video promising a gripping story turns out to be an exercise in hyperbole.

Except, again, not too many people had a problem with that. In fact, this inspired a slew of similarly mundane videos about how other young girls and boys also "almost got kidnapped".

Take a look at Christopher London, who claims that he now knows what being in the film Taken feels like.

What he really means is that his Uber driver had a strange accent and was driving very slowly. And we're not sure that's what Taken was about at all. Toward the end of narrating his traumatic kidnapping ordeal, he announces Christmas giveaways to his subscribers.

There's also Simply Nessa, a veteran of YouTube hyperbole, who talks about her experience of getting kidnapped. Well, not really. She's actually only just talking about street harassment. Because being creeped out, at least on YouTube, is the same as being kidnapped (interestingly, she has also disallowed comments on her video, a tactic used by most click-baiters).

That video received 3 million views. And it then acquired a sequel. The next one was watched over 5 million times and is about the time she was followed by a guy on a skateboard on her way back from Walmart. Simply Nessa has over 900,000 subscribers on YouTube. (Simply Nessa is Fake will also yield over 300 results on Youtube, by the way.)

Sure, these are uncomfortable experiences. And perhaps documenting them helps more people talk about street harassment and awkward encounters in public spaces.

But does labelling street harassment as kidnapping take away from the ordeal of those who have, in fact, been kidnapped?

Will the real kidnappee please stand up?

A beauty vlogger (video blogger) took to YouTube this July to talk about her real kidnapping experience. She was offended, or so she claimed, by the fake kidnapping stories doing the rounds of the internet. In a 39-minute long video, she vividly described her experience of being trafficked for $500 when she was twelve years old.

This video received 1.6 million views.

There's no way to verify Asia's account. And given that the most insightful thing she has to say is I was so miserable you guys!, there is also a possibility that it, too, may be entirely untrue. But there's something deeply compelling about women and girls (and in the odd case, men) taking to social media to talk about their possibly fictitious experiences with kidnapping.

One could argue that there's nothing very wrong with taking to social media to tell stories. But there is something fundamentally wrong about taking to social media to become a survivor of a crime you didn't face.

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Because it's no longer about healing, or communicating with other survivors, or the remedial powers sharing experience, or telling one another how to deal with it.

Being a survivor, or for the most part, pretending to be one, is now a soulless function of economics. Clickbait videos win views and subscribers. And for a revenue model that rewards views, not quality or truth, a quick video about almost getting kidnapped is an easy way to remedy dwindling numbers. All you need is the gift of storytelling. And inevitably, what that's spiralled into is a petty, ugly Youtube/Twitter battle of I'm the real victim, she isn't.

We're come to a stage where we're hardpressed to decide which we find more upsetting. A video about being trafficked, or a video about being trafficked that ends with: "Thanks guys! Hope you enjoyed the video! Click here to subscribe!"

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First published: 11 December 2015, 1:12 IST
Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia

A Beyonce-loving feminist who writes about literature and lifestyle at Catch, Sneha is a fan of limericks, sonnets, pantoums and anything that rhymes. She loves economics and music, and has found a happy profession in neither. When not being consumed by the great novels of drama and tragedy, she pays the world back with poems of nostalgia, journals of heartbreak and critiques of the comfortable.