When 25-year-old Carlethia ‘Carlee’ Russell called 911 on July 13, she told the responder she saw a toddler in a diaper walking along Hoover, Alabama’s Interstate 459. After hanging up the phone, she called her brother’s girlfriend, telling her the same story before pulling onto the shoulder of the road. According to Russell’s mother Talitha, the last thing that could be heard on the phone was Russell asking someone if they were alright. “[Her brother’s girlfriend] never heard the child say anything but then she heard our daughter scream,” Talitha told local news organization AL.com “From there, all you hear on her phone is background noise from the interstate.”
Police officers responded to the scene in under 6 minutes, according to a statement from the Hoover Police. They found Russell’s car exactly where CCTV footage captured her pulling off the road, along with her wig, purse, Apple Watch, and cell phone inside. But they couldn’t find Russell.
In what her family members are calling an answer to prayers, Russell returned to her home two days later, on the night of July 15. There’s been no official statement about her whereabouts, and in a statement to Rolling Stone, police said they are still actively investigating the case. But in the 48 hours Russell was missing, the nationwide manhunt for the woman shifted into a conspiracy free-for-all online. Hashtags related to Russell’s case have over 155 million views on TikTok, a number that continues to grow daily — with speculative videos using the related hashtags far outpacing actual news reports. There are accounts desperately trying to enhance the footage of her car pulling over, influencers using her story as a cautionary tale, and even more alleging (without evidence) that the young woman was either abducted by a calculating trafficking ring or planned the whole thing as an elaborate hoax for attention. Russell’s disappearance, and subsequent safe return, have become the latest example of how social media can turn real-life stories into fodder for content, entertainment, and unfounded theories, and do major harm to public understanding of what trafficking really looks like.
According to multiple statements from police, law enforcement was able to retrace almost every step Russell took before she disappeared, including capturing her car on multiple cameras, but were unsure where she went after she left her car. Russell’s family was also extremely vocal during the search, begging for assistance from anyone who might have seen something. But the same circumstances that made Russell’s disappearance national news has also opened her case up to mass and unfiltered scrutiny online from true crime fanatics. One video uses footage of Russell’s mother looking at the ground during a press conference to imply she was hiding something. It’s been viewed over 100 thousand times. Other individual users have become more frank, posting vlogs about their own unfounded beliefs about where Russell was “held” or “kept” during her time away. One news influencer, Marquis, even created a video where he claimed to be Russell’s brother to help raise awareness about her case. (Marquis, also known as @faithandbishop2 on TikTok, has since apologized and said he was referring to Russell as his “sister in Christ”).
It’s also important to note that while obsessions over Russell’s disappearance have manifested in intense speculation on social media, trafficking isn’t just an online fixation. Rather, in recent years, the threat of trafficking has been used as a “political cudgel” against partisan competitors, expert Joseph Uscinski tells Rolling Stone.
“Lots of people overestimate the amount of child sex trafficking in this country,” he says. “And those beliefs go far beyond the small number of people who are Q-Anon believers. [It’s a] large majority of Americans.”
The constantly quotable and often-wrong statistics, combined with over-sensationalized accounts of trafficking, like in the recently released film The Sound of Freedom, has created a volatile landscape, Uscinski adds — one that values sensationalized campaigns to help victims over genuine aid. And that lack of information can often help to obscure the real truth: most child trafficking victims know and trust their traffickers, Teresa Huizar, CEO of the National Children’s Alliance previously told Rolling Stone.
“We want to believe that people trafficking children are unknown, nefarious strangers,” Huizar said. “[It] makes people uncomfortable to think some of these things happen in their own communities, in their own schools, with people they might run into at the grocery store.”
And the theories didn’t just remain on social media. In a post celebrating Russell’s safe return, Russell’s boyfriend Thomar Simmons acknowledged that people immediately began speculating about whether or not Russell’s family was involved in her disappearance.
“I was straight tunnel vision, even when I would get on social media on my downtime & see some of the false allegations & assumptions about me having something to do with her abduction,” Simmons wrote in an Instagram post. Russell’s mother acknowledged some of the attention on her Facebook as well, saying, “Just as we made a commitment to not entertain negative thoughts during the time our daughter was missing, we surely will not entertain negative thoughts/statements, unvalidated opinions, or sheer ignorance at such a joyous time.”
Expert Adam Enders also tells Rolling Stone a lack of available statistics makes it far more likely that the average person might fall victim to misinformation.
“I think the trafficking concerns are a little bit different than other types of misinformation and conspiracy theories, in that they probably are motivated more by a fear than the others,” Enders says. “Part of what’s unique about this is that I don’t think people have any sense of how prevalent trafficking actually is. It’s one thing for people to be exposed to misinformation when quality information abounds. It’s another thing to be exposed to misinformation when you have no context for what a reasonable expectation could possibly be.”
Following Russell’s reappearance on Saturday, authorities took her to a local hospital, according to a statement from Hoover Police. After an evaluation, she was released. Police have already said they were able to take a preliminary statement from Russell and will release more information as needed.
“Detectives responded to the residence and to UAB to take an initial statement from Carlee,” Hoover Police said. The details of that statement are a part of the ongoing investigation which is expected to continue over the next few days. During the initial portion of the investigation, detectives were able to retrace nearly all of Carlee’s steps until the point she went missing and are confident that will continue to be the case.”
But as speculation into Russell’s case continues, it’s evident that a political spotlight on trafficking, and a social media community ravenous for entertainment, has created the perfect storm — one where true victims of trafficking and their families always seem to lose.
“Any amount of child sex trafficking is unacceptable. But oftentimes, you find people who want to push the issue and they wind up conflating lots of different things to get bigger numbers to make it sound far more widespread,” Uscinski tells Rolling Stone. “The problem is [that] doesn’t do anything to help victims and it doesn’t do anything to help allocate resources properly. Because if we think that everyone’s just getting snatched off the street, then we’re going to be missing the true causes of child abuse.”