Lynne Knowles didn’t expect a Facebook Live video she made about getting followed by a strange man in a grocery store to rack up millions of views, but the Pinellas County, Florida, resident’s warning to friends wound up being a viral sensation.

Knowles posted the video on 17 September 2018, warning women that she had seen men lurking around parking lots, and that one man had gone so far as stalk her as she shopped at a Publix grocery store near her home in August. “Be very careful,” she warned. “Ladies, tell your daughters. Men, tell your daughters they’ve got to be careful coming in and out of parking lots. They’ve got to be very aware of their surroundings and carry their keys in their hands. If nothing else, have a head set on because it at least looks like you’re hooked up to a phone and can call 911 immediately”:

 

As a result of the video, Knowles has been featured in a number of local news stories, some of which reported that local police countered perhaps her most explosive comment: that the incidents she described were evidence that human trafficking was afoot in Pinellas County.

“There’s human trafficking going on,” Knowles said in the video. “There are men posted all over parking lots, they’re following women and they’re trying to grab them.” (The video, captioned, “PLEASE BE AWARE OF THE DANGER OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING!!”, had been shared a quarter of a million times and viewed by 8.3 million people as of 19 September 2018, just two days after it was posted.)

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Gross told us police have seen no evidence of a rash of attempted kidnappings or human trafficking activity in the area. He said Knowles didn’t report the incident in which she was followed in the grocery store to police, but he added that investigators are trying to track down the other encounters described in the video: “We arrested a guy two weeks ago who followed a woman into a restaurant bathroom and recorded her. We do have creepers, and we do investigate those. Are we seeing an increase? I wouldn’t say an increase but we do get those complaints.”

Some Facebook users accused Knowles of spreading hoaxes and “fake news.” Others poked fun at her or criticized her for promoting “hysteria.” For her part, Knowles told us she didn’t report the Publix incident because after she confronted the man, he stopped following her.

Knowles said that after she posted her video, multiple women reached out to her to relay similar experiences. “I’m grateful for the literally millions of people who have reached out and said thank you,” Knowles told us in a phone interview. While she has received some negative feedback, “the good much outweighs the bad.”

Knowles told us she stands by every incident she described and maintained that while it may not be human trafficking, women are definitely experiencing scary incidents: “I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on but it’s happened multiple times. When you live somewhere and you know six or seven people who have the same experience — I was trying to warn my friends, I had no idea it would ever go viral.”

One incident happened the same day Knowles posted the video, she said, when an older woman entered the Earth Origins health food store she was shopping at and reported she had been followed by a man through a parking lot who he tried to accost her. “She was scared to death,” Knowles recounted in the video. “She’s a trauma nurse, she told me, and she said she’s never been so scared in her life. I understand because I was rattled by what happened at Publix.”

What happened to Knowles is hardly unusual. According to a February 2018 study on sexual harassment and assault lead by the non-profit organization Stop Street Harassment, the vast majority of women, some 81 percent, have experienced some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetimes, and 34 percent of women reported they have been followed. Furthermore, public spaces (such as grocery stores) are where sexual harassment most frequently occurs, according to the study. Most sexual harassment is perpetrated by male strangers, and a third of women reported experiencing anxiety or depression after such incidents.

Holly Kearl, executive director of Stop Street Harassment, told us Knowles’ concerns for women’s safety are legitimate. In an email, she stated that “these are common and very scary occurrences for women,” adding that “If a woman has had this kind of experience and/or if she’s heard about men attacking, kidnapping, raping or killing women in their area, they will feel less safe and more wary of any man they don’t know who approaches them.”

The term “human trafficking” refers to “modern-day slavery and “involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Although victims of human trafficking come from an array of backgrounds, they are often recruited from socially-vulnerable groups. Many victims are migrants, and roughly a quarter of the world’s 40.3 million trafficking victims are children.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security:

[Traffickers] look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons, including psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability. The trauma caused by the traffickers can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help, even in highly public settings.

It’s no surprised Knowles initially suspected her safety concerns were related to human trafficking, because the term has been rocketing around the Internet, although it is often employed in the service of bogus conspiracy theories. The Pizzagate conspiracy theory perhaps most famously (and falsely) accused 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats of running a child trafficking ring out of a basement at a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant (which actually has no basement).

Since the Pizzagate phenomenon, similarly outlandish claims have been fed into cyberspace, including a June 2018 incident in which a group of men stumbled into what they claimed to be a “bunker” used for child sex trafficking. Police investigated and determined the “bunker” was nothing more than an abandoned homeless encampment. (Child trafficking is also a key component to the far-fetched but popular fabrication that is the Qanon conspiracy theory.)

Regardless of terminology, Knowles said the reason she posted her video was to warn women to be careful and had no ill intent. “The video speaks for itself and the intent was only to bring good and awareness to people. That’s all.”

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