Local authorities believe that a TikTok distress signal may have saved a 16-year old girl who was being held in a car on a Kentucky highway.
According to reports, a driver in Laurel County saw the little girl raising her hand with her thumb extended and her palm facing forward. The girl then wrapped her thumb around her thumb and tucked it into her palm. According to the Lauren Country police report, the driver recognized the gesture from TikTok videos. The gesture is used to signal for help in domestic violence situations, he said. After noticing that the girl seemed to be in distress, the driver called the police and followed his car, keeping the dispatcher updated. It is not clear how long the girl had been sending the distress signal before being finally noticed.
"We don’t know how long she had been doing that to other motorists on the Ohio interstate, hoping that they would notice she was in distress," Lauren Country police deputy Gilbert Acciardo said to WKYT.
The kidnapper was eventually captured by police. He was 61 years old and charged with unlawful imprisonment as well as possession of material showing a performance sexual. According to Fox 8, the man was reported to have traveled with the girl, from Asheville in North Carolina to Ohio. He did not know that the girl's parents had reported her missing. After his family expressed concern about the girl's age, the man drove back. On the return trip, her hand signals were noticed.
The rescuer's hand gesture has been viralized through TikTok videos. However, the gesture was originally created by the Canadian Women's Foundation's "Signal for Help" to help people in crisis signal for assistance over video during the pandemic.
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The Foundation states that it can be used to help someone show their need for help in a quiet way and ask for help in a safe environment.
Violence against women and young girls has increased during the pandemic, which the United Nations describes as "The Shadow Pandemic". According to a National Commission on Covid-19, domestic violence incidents rose by 8.1% when jurisdictions imposed lockdown orders.
This Kentucky case highlights the positive aspects of algorithmic amplification in a social media world that is often dominated by misinformation and harmful content.