“So have you ever seen this type of car seat just out of nowhere?” the woman in the TikTok video asks. She’s pointing to a photo of an abandoned baby car seat in a parking lot, posted on a Facebook page. “Let’s talk about that right now,” she says. “Because that’s not an ordinary car seat. …That’s actually a trap.” The woman goes on to say it’s a “sex trafficking car seat,” that is being placed as bait by sex traffickers to kidnap and enslave unsuspecting victims.
“If you see a random car seat, please call somebody and please call the hotline and let them know,” the woman concludes, flashing the number for a sex trafficking hotline. “No parent will ever leave a random car seat out there just to be out there. They want you to go up to the car seat and look around while they snatch you really quick.” In a follow-up video, she claimed to have seen the same car seat on the side of the road in her own town, although the car seat in her second video does not look like the car seat in the picture shown in the first.
The woman who posted the video is @princessbellesunflower, a.k.a. Paige Marie Parker, a TikTok creator with 122,000 followers who bills herself as a “spiritual gardener” who offers Tarot intuitive readings on social media. Despite her lack of credentials as a sex trafficking expert, however, her video has gone massively viral, racking up 12.2 million views in just over a day since it was posted.
In DMs to Rolling Stone, Parker says she posted her video after seeing a friend post about the “car seat trap” on Facebook. She didn’t think much of it, until she saw two abandoned car seats on the side of the road while she was driving. Before posting her TikTok, she contacted a trafficking hotline. “I just wanted to make sure people were aware,” she says.
On Oct. 12, the Wilkesboro Police Department published a post on Facebook about the car seat rumor, a photo of which Parker included in her video. But the post does not actually say that the car seat in the photo was used as a lure by sex traffickers — in fact, it says the opposite. “The attached photos were posted on Facebook and shared discussing an issue at the Wilkesboro Wal-Mart,” the October 12th post says. “The post referenced sex traffickers leaving child seats in parking lots to lure people in for sex trafficking. The Wilkesboro Police Department has investigated this incident and discovered the circumstances of how the seat was left in the parking lot.”
According to the post, two Wal-Mart customers simply had left their old car seat in the parking lot after buying and installing a new one. “At no time was this incident deemed to be involved in any criminal activity,” the post, which has only 255 shares as opposed to Parker’s video, which has more than 264,000 shares, concludes.
After reading the Wilkesboro Police Department’s follow-up post clarifying the context of the video, a handful of people have commented on Parker’s post asking her to delete the video. TikTok creator Jessica Dean, aka @BloodBathBeyond, who debunks trafficking misinformation on TikTok, has also weighed in, “I’m not entirely sure why society collectively agreed that sex traffickers operate in a similar fashion to Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner, but this is overwhelmingly not how trafficking happens,” Dean says in her video. (That particular debunk video has only about 20,000 views, far fewer than Parker’s own TikTok).
Megan Cutter, director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is operated by Polaris, says that the hotline has received “quite a few” tips based off Parker’s TikTok from just within the last 24 hours. “People are calling and repeating the same information from the TikTok, because thats what the post requested they do,” she says. “It can be challenging because we’re continuing to spend time and resources responding to that, rather than to survivors calling to get help.” Cutter says traffickers placing car seats to lure victims “isn’t a pattern we are aware of or have heard from survivors.”
In response to such feedback, though, Parker appears to be doubling down. She tells Rolling Stone that while she is aware of the Wilkesboro Police Department’s post, “however, I still feel that there is something going on in our society. And because the post went viral, I believe that many people feel the same way. There are other videos and pictures of strange activities that have been posted on Facebook and TikTok. It’s not just me who believes that.” She says she intends to keep the post up to send the message to people to “stay alert.” “I don’t want men and women feel like they have to shut up about the issue,” she says.
Blatant sex-trafficking misinformation, such as the type of content shared in Parker’s post, is an extremely widespread issue on TikTok, whose algorithm often promotes increasingly sensationalistic content that is more likely to prompt high engagement. Last summer, for instance, the Wayfair sex trafficking conspiracy theory, which posited that sex traffickers were using high-priced Wayfair items as a front for smuggling children, first went massively viral on TikTok; as recently as last April, a rumor that sex traffickers were procuring victims at Target stores across the country also gained traction on the app. “Panicky videos are very engaging,” Abbie Richards, a TikTok misinformation researcher, previously told Rolling Stone. “If you are just watching someone say, ‘Oh my God, this happened to me,’ that’ll go viral. Scary content goes quite viral.”
Such content obscures the reality of sex trafficking in the United States, which is that it rarely involves strangers hiding in dark corners, waiting to snatch unsuspecting victims. Although few reliable numbers are available regarding the prevalence of sex trafficking, according to anti-trafficking organizations like Polaris, the vast majority of victims are disenfranchised people — homeless LGBTQ youth, for instance, or people addicted to controlled substances — who already know their traffickers.
When narratives like the car seat myth go viral, it can do serious harm to actual trafficking survivors, says Cutter. “If the narrative on social platforms is this sensationalized, inaccurate story and that becomes the dominant narrative about how trafficking happens, people who are experiencing trafficking might not recognize their own experiences in these types of stories,” she says, adding that such viral videos also overwhelms anti-trafficking organizations’ resources and makes it difficult for actual survivors to contact them for help.
TikTok did not yet respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment as to why this particular video, which appears to violate its policies preventing misinformation, is still actively being shared on the platform, despite the source of the misinformation having publicly refuted it. But regardless of whether this particular video will be taken down, unfortunately, the reality of these types of viral narratives — in this case, that two people simply abandoned their old car seat after buying a new one — is a lot less sexy than the idea that strange men are lying in wait to snatch unsuspecting women in parking lots.
“Littering isn’t cool, yo,” Dean says. “Can we just be mad about lazy people instead of making it a grand conspiracy?”
Update Thurs., Oct. 14, 3:14 p.m. EST: This post has been updated with comment from Polaris.