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Recent stories uncover a worryingly malleable media

On Nov. 23, a woman in Hong Kong reported to police that her six-month-old daughter was snatched while she was distracted by a man and woman asking for directions. The pair spoke with a mainland Chinese accent, she noted.

The news shocked the city, where child abduction is rare. Local police sent hundreds of officers to search the area where the reported child theft took place. High school students took to the streets to post self-made “lost baby” posters. Dozens of celebrities expressed concern on their social media pages. A Facebook page created to help find the girl attracted over 60,000 followers in one day.

In addition to calling for the girl's safety, many also weighed in on what they perceived as the negative effect of mainland Chinese people on Hong Kong's public security. In the introduction of the Facebook page, the creator called for Hong Kongers to “work together” while reminding people to beware of families from the “strong nation” — a Hong Kong moniker for mainland China. An entertainer commented that the long-absent specter of child theft returned to Hong Kong thanks to the culture of the “heavenly dynasty” — another sarcastic nickname for mainland China. A substantial number of people expressed similar opinions in online comments.

Ten days after she reported the incident, however, the mother confessed to the police that she cooked up the whole baby-snatching story to cover up her deeds. She told the officers that her daughter had died on Nov. 17 (the police have yet to determine the cause of death). She said she then hid the body in a violin case and threw it away as household garbage.

Tragic infant deaths due to negligence or domestic accidents occasionally take place. It is also not unimaginable that in a moment of great distress, a mother would resort to extraordinary measures such as inventing a baby theft story to convince people (perhaps including herself) that the infant's death was not her fault. What is uncommon is how one mother's statement created villains based on public stereotypes. There were not just baby thieves, but baby thieves with mainland Chinese accents.

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