You may have seen those Facebook rumors about white vans “spreading fear,” as CNN and other media reported a series of viral social media posts about men in white vans supposedly kidnapping women and selling them for sex and body parts. The mayor of Baltimore even issued a warning, despite there having been no confirmed incidents.
The hoax is a classic example of how easy it is to rev up fears. It’s also an opportunity to help people learn to recognize blatant misinformation, take a pause, and get better at defeating fake news.
White vans are an easy target: just specific enough to get people’s attention, yet very common. White is the most popular color for vans and SUVs: 19 percent of them are white. Automakers sold more than 17 million light trucks, vans, and SUVs combined in 2018, making up nearly 70 percent of U.S vehicles sold that year.
And it’s probably no coincidence that the white van rumor was set loose around the holidays, as delivery vans –an awful lot of them white– spread out across the United States delivering packages.
This is not to say that parking lot safety is not important —it certainly is. Any alert driver, especially women, should stay aware of their surroundings in a parking lot, park in well-lit areas, and be especially careful next to large vehicles that can hide them from view -whether to protect from pedestrian accidents or being grabbed.
Sex trafficking and human trafficking more broadly also are very real problems. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports nearly 52,000 cases in the United States from 2007 through the end of 2018.
But instead of getting hysterical about the next white van you see, educate yourself about the warning signs of sex trafficking so that you can recognize a real emergency.
It’s a good habit to follow whenever you hear something sensational and frightful. Check the source to be sure it’s reliable. Look into the odds that it will affect you. And then turn your attention to a threat that really matters.
For a refresher, here’s a great graphic of causes of death in comparison with the number one cause, which may or may not be what you think it is. Play the video to get a better sense of scale.
I know. BOR-ing.
But that’s part of the point. Cognitive biases make us pay attention to things that are less familiar and more “emotionally salient,” as psychologists put it: that is something surprising or frightening.
White vans are perfect for hoaxes because of the surprise element: they are so familiar that we don’t pay attention to them until someone re-paints them, so to speak, in a frightening hue. And when they succeed, there are enough out there that they are hard not to ignore. (Do you remember the black helicopter hoax in 1999, mixed in with fears around the turn of the millennium? Black helicopters are not nearly as common as white vans, but a similar principle was in play.)
Whenever you read the latest story about a new study that says what you’re eating for breakfast is going to kill you, or that this or that type of person is a terrorist, or that whatever kind of threat needs your urgent attention, just take a deep breath and look for the facts.
Of course, just telling yourself that you’re far more likely to die in a car accident than in a plane crash isn’t enough to overcome the fear the first few times you fly, or even for frequent flyers in the middle of a lightning storm. And no matter how sensible what I’ve just said appears to be, try looking at a white van now and not getting just a few goosebumps.
But having the facts at hand matters. And it’s worth getting into the habit of doing regular reality checks. Did this thing really happen? Even if it did, what are the odds that it will happen to me? Is there anything in my environment that increases the odds? Or anything I can do to reduce them?
Once you’ve done that, remind yourself of a real problem that you know is there but are so used to that you just ignore it even though you know you shouldn’t. Then make a point of doing something about just one thing you have been putting off. Make a dentist appointment. Eat a salad. Change the oil in the car. Get a full night’s rest. Switch out that glass of wine for seltzer.
The best way to avoid getting bamboozled by nonsense is to use it as a cue to turn your attention where it’s most needed. And there’s no better way to respond to a hoax than with a little friendly inoculation.
This article is part of my LinkedIn series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections.
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