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Discover How A Popular Teenage App Became The Target Of An Elaborate Sex Trafficking Hoax

Gas App Kidnapping
Gas App Kidnapping

The Gas App Kidnapping allows high schoolers to express appreciation to one another, but an unfounded rumor has left the company facing violent threats and working overtime to save their platform. This isn’t the first time something like this has transpired.

Daniel Self, 17, a high school senior from a small Alabama town, discovered an app in early October that allows users to send anonymous compliments to their friends. He downloaded it immediately upon hearing about its capabilities.

He appreciated the affirmations he received through the app Gas, particularly regarding how he dressed; something he put effort into. “It feels very validating,” he said.

Millions of teenagers across America concurred. Since its release in the Apple app store in late August, Gas has been downloaded more than 5.1 million times and teenagers are sharing about it through meme pages and private Snapchat stories.

Self was witness to the meteoric rise of Gas. Almost overnight, all students at his school seemed to have downloaded it – “it was like a light switch going off – everyone I knew had it and everyone was posting about it,” he recalled.

“It was crazy; it happened so fast – like one day everyone I knew had it and suddenly everyone I knew had it and was using it.”

One week before Halloween, Self was standing with some classmates outside her school with phones out, exchanging compliments on Gas when a friend of hers came over and warned them: “That app is for sex trafficking!” with an anxious voice. She panicked as students across the campus began deleting it in mass numbers.

Gas has never been linked to human trafficking, and its structure makes it impossible. It offers limited features, doesn’t track users’ locations, and cannot be used for messaging someone. At its core, however, Gas serves as a basic polling platform that allows users to vote anonymously on preset compliments sent between mutual connections.

But the rumor persists, bedeviling both the young startup and its founding team, as well as worrying users and their parents alike.

It’s the latest example of a worrying pattern: Popular consumer-facing apps become overnight successes, only to be dogged by rumors that they’re fronts for sex trafficking.

This happened with Down To Lunch in May 2016, IRL (a social app that helps users plan in-person meetups), and WalkSafe (2021), an app designed to help women gauge safety levels in neighborhoods.

Though the source of these rumors remains uncertain, they have been spread by police departments, local TV news stations, and school district officials alike.

Nikita Bier, 33, was initially delighted by his app’s success. This marked her second successful venture as an entrepreneur; previously creating and selling TBH (internet slang for “to be honest”) which allowed people to leave positive feedback to friends. After selling TBH to Facebook in 2017, Bier spent four years at the tech giant before returning to start-up life last November.

He decided to apply his experience running TBH and create a similar platform, creating Gas (originally named Melt then Crush), with tech entrepreneurs Isaiah Turner and Dave Schatz. Bier also brought on Michael Gutierrez who previously worked at TBH as head of community support. On August 29th the app went public!

On Oct. 11, Bier tweeted, “After five years, I am no longer a one-hit-wonder. Introducing Gas — No. 1 in the U.S. App Store.” The app’s success spawned an outpouring of the positive press; Bier told the Wall Street Journal: “To us, being at No. 1 is an affirmation that we’re doing something right for teens.”

On October 5, however, controversy began to stir. A user expressed concern over hearing that the app might be connected to human trafficking. Bier and his team initially dismissed this message; however, within days dozens and then hundreds more followed suit – “we started getting flooded on the app store with bad reviews,” Bier explained. “Ever since then,” it seems, there has been nothing but bad feedback for them on iTunes.”

One app store review read, “If you have this app, delete it immediately!” This app has been used for trafficking children – almost 30 have gone missing since its inception.”

Another review noted that “This app is engaging in sex trafficking of teenagers and kids,” adding that “over 50 children have gone missing in Ohio.”

Rumors spread quickly on social media. Teenagers posted videos on TikTok and Snapchat accusing the app of trafficking minors, prompting parents to warn other parents. On Oct. 31, the Piedmont, Okla. police department released a statement warning parents about the app and encouraging them to check their children’s phones for damage. This post garnered hundreds of shares on Facebook within hours.

“That posting was the result of a forwarded post that we later learned was false,” Piedmont Police Chief Scott Singer noted. “After consulting with the CEO of Gas, it has been determined to be false. As such, we have removed it from our Facebook page and informed any schools about any false reports.”

On Thursday, the Oktaha Public School system in Oklahoma posted an announcement on their Facebook page claiming the Gas app tricked students into giving away their locations.

Gas App Kidnapping
Gas App Kidnapping

“Children are being kidnapped across other towns and this new app is thought to be the source,” read the post. After Bier reached out and explained his app, however, the post was taken down; according to Jerry Needham, superintendent for Oktaha school district: “We’ve confirmed this was a hoax and removed it.”

Local media also fell for the hoax. KOCO 5 News in Oklahoma City ran a segment warning that the app could be dangerous to children and falsely stated that Gas tricked children into sharing their information. “Police are reporting cases of kidnappings elsewhere – could this be linked to your app,” reported one reporter on air.

After Bier asked them for clarification, one reporter noted on air that police had withdrawn their statement and the Gas app team “believes their app is secure.” Despite multiple requests for comment from KOCO 5 News, multiple requests for comment were ignored.

According to Bier, the false accusations began having a significant effect on Gas’ business. On one day, 3 percent of users deleted their accounts due to the rumor; as downloads plateaued between Oct. 17 and 24, according to data from Sensor Tower – an analytics firm – during those two weeks there was no increase in downloads at all.

Gas’ social channels have been deluged with spam from users labeling the team sex traffickers day and night. As a result, its revenue — dependent on subscriptions and in-app purchases — has drastically declined. When someone searches “Gas app” on Google, they’re presented with autocomplete suggestions like “Gas app kidnapping”, “Gas app dangerous” and “Gas app human trafficking”.

The four-person Gas App Kidnapping team has been receiving violent threats almost daily. “One user said, ‘I have a Glock and I’ll come into your house and kill all of you,” Bier said. “These messages are detailed; some send up to 150 at once because they’re so angry. We have had emails saying ‘what you’re doing is disgusting – I’ve reported you to the FBI’,” the FBI did not reply when asked for comment on the matter.

Bier’s countering the rumor has become almost a full-time job. “The app grows on its own, but dealing with the hoax requires a lot of labor,” he said. He stays up until midnight every night when the app store refreshes to address all the negative reviews against his company.

The company has taken proactive steps to combat misinformation. It sent push notifications to every user about safety and built a safety center with resources about the platform. Bier’s girlfriend even posted a video on TikTok debunking the sex-trafficking claim, which the company shared on its TikTok page.

Human trafficking survivor and advocate Eliza Bleu sought to dispel conspiracy theories on Twitter. On Oct. 20, actor Ashton Kutcher, who is not invested in Gas but co-founded Thorn, a nonprofit that builds digital tools to protect children from sexual abuse and combat child sex trafficking, posted that “Gas app is not involved in trafficking humans.”

“Initially, we wondered who would believe this. This doesn’t make any sense,” Bier explained. “But the challenge lies in knowing that you can only fight memes with memes – if something’s not easily screenshotted able and exciting then its message won’t gain more traction than its original one.”

Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of digital platforms and ethics at the University of Oregon, believes Bier and his team are facing something much greater than mere speculation. Since “Pizzagate,” the precursor to the QAnon movement, gained momentum in 2016, false allegations about child sexual exploitation have become commonplace. According to Phillips, “This narrative about children being in danger is really pervasive culturally right now,” she said.

“To understand why this app is being targeted,” Phillips explained, “you need to grasp the prevailing narrative that evil groups are doing terrible things to children. It becomes an easy target for attacks against any individual or organization.”

Experts offer a range of explanations for why sex trafficking rumors persist on consumer social apps, from deep-seated fears about child safety to growing distrust towards technology and institutions, declining news media literacy levels, and the rapid spread of stories through digital platforms.

“The idea that there’s this evil network of groomers and sex traffickers has become a widely spread zeitgeist,” according to Emily Dreyfuss, co-author of “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America.” Everyone feels uneasy about what their kids are up to and exposed to; then comes an app that goes viral only among youngsters – yet parents and teachers don’t seem to comprehend its implications at all. These conditions create moral panic.”

In today’s media environment, fear can spread quickly. Many Gas users who spoke to The Post said they didn’t even bother Googling before spreading the sex-trafficking rumor. Those who did Google said they didn’t trust mainstream news articles claiming it was a hoax.

Ziad Ahmed, founder and CEO of JUV Consulting, a Gen Z research and marketing firm, noted that we are in an “era of trust crisis.” She added, “People don’t trust media to do fact checks anymore – there’s simply too much distrust between them and those doing the checking.”

Bier’s peers in the industry suggested he hire a crisis PR team to assist him with managing the crisis, but Bier dismissed this idea as “useless” since few understand how young people navigate today’s digital media landscape.

“Press has no power to combat that,” he noted. “There’s no way for the message to get out there because teens aren’t reading legacy news.”

Self-admitted that he was skeptical of the sex-trafficking rumor from the start, but understood why many of his classmates wouldn’t. “Boomers will believe anything they see on Facebook; my generation believes everything they see on TikTok,” Self-explained. “They won’t verify it at all; they won’t Google it – they just believe what they see and don’t question it a bit.”

“Media literacy should be promoted, if not explicitly taught in schools,” Self said. “Many people lack the capacity to learn new information and are unable to distinguish rumors from facts.”

Bier noted that this hectic online environment is one of the reasons Gas has become so popular. The app allows kids to express their thoughts about each other without ever having to type a single word.

“Complimenting people and opening up to people can be a very uncomfortable experience,” he said. “It’s sad that so many amazing qualities about us go unsaid until our eulogy. I hope this app provides a safe space to express these sentiments anonymously.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Whitney Phillips’ surname. This version has been corrected.

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