#parent | #kids | How a viral teen app became the center of a sex trafficking conspiracy


When Daniel Self, 17, a high school senior in a small town in Alabama, heard in early October about a new app that allows people to send anonymous compliments to their friends, he downloaded it immediately.

He liked the positive messages he received from friends through the app, called Gas, especially the ones about the way he dressed, since it was something he put effort into. “It’s very validating,” he said.

Millions of teenagers across America agreed. Since its debut in Apple’s app store in late August, Gas has been downloaded over 5.1 million times. Teenagers post about it on meme pages and their private Snapchat stories.

Self saw the rise of the app first hand. Nearly overnight, every single person at his school seemed to have Gas. “It was crazy, it was like a light switch, it was so fast. I’d never heard of [Gas] one day, then literally everyone I knew had it and was posting about it,” he said.

Then everything changed.

A week before Halloween, Self was huddled with some classmates before school, phones out, comparing compliments on Gas, when a friend of theirs walked over. “You know, that app is for sex trafficking,” the friend told them in a nervous voice. “You shouldn’t have that, you really need to delete it.” Panicked, students at the school began deleting it en masse.

Gas has never been linked to any form of human trafficking, and the app’s very structure makes it impossible, experts say. The app has limited features, doesn’t track users’ locations and can’t be used to message someone. It’s a basic polling platform that allows users to vote anonymously on preset compliments to send to mutual connections.

But the rumor remains pervasive, plaguing the fledgling start-up and its founding team and worrying users and their parents alike.

It’s the latest example of a troubling pattern: A buzzy, consumer-facing app becomes an overnight hit, only to be beset by rumors that it’s a front for sex trafficking. It happened in May 2016 to the social app Down To Lunch; in 2018 to IRL, a social app that helps users plan in-person meetups; and in 2021 to WalkSafe, an app designed to help women gauge the safety of neighborhoods.

Despite the similar pattern, the source of the rumors remains unclear. But the narrative about Gas has been spread by police departments, local TV news and school district officials.

Second hit app

Nikita Bier, 33, was initially over the moon about his app’s success. It was the second hit app for the young entrepreneur. Bier previously build and sold an app called TBH, internet slang for “to be honest,” that allowed people to send positive feedback to friends. Bier sold it to Facebook in 2017, then spent four years at Facebook before leaving last November to dive back into the start-up world.

He decided to take what he’d learned from running TBH and build a new, similar platform. The result was Gas, (initially named Melt, then Crush), which he co-founded with tech entrepreneurs Isaiah Turner and Dave Schatz. Bier also brought on Michael Gutierrez, who formerly worked at TBH as head of community support. The app launched publicly on Aug. 29.

The four-person team at Gas App uses co-founder Nikita Bier’s home as its office. (Linnea Bullion / For The Washington Post)

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he tweeted on Oct. 11, “after a 5-year hiatus, I am no longer a one-hit wonder. Introducing Gas — No. 1 in the U.S. App Store” The app’s success garnered a deluge of positive press.

But controversy was already brewing. On Oct. 5, the company received its first strange message: a user was concerned because they’d heard the app was linked to human trafficking. Bier and the team initially brushed it off, but within days dozens, then hundreds of messages began to pour in. “We started getting flooded on the app store with bad reviews,” Bier said.

“If you have this app, delete it NOW!” one app store review read. “This app is meant for trafficking children, almost 30 kids have gone missing.”

“This app is sex trafficking teenagers and kids,” read another review. “Over 50 kids have gone missing in Ohio.”

The rumor ricocheted across the internet. Teenagers posted videos on TikTok and Snapchat saying the app was trafficking minors. Parents began warning other parents. On Oct. 31, police in the Piedmont, Okla., issued a statement warning parents about the app and encouraging them to check their kids’ phones. The department’s post received hundreds of shares on Facebook.

“That posting was the result of a post that was forwarded to us, which we later learned to be a bogus posting,” said Piedmont Police Chief Scott Singer. “As a result, we talked with the CEO of Gas, and we have determined it was a bogus posting. We have removed that from our Facebook page and informed the schools that any postings about that were discovered to be false.”

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

“Children are being kidnapped in other towns and this new app is thought to be the source of predators finding their location,” the Facebook post read. After Bier reached out, explaining his app, the post was removed. “We’ve confirmed that this was a hoax and we removed it,” said Jerry Needham, superintendent for the Oktaha school district.

Local media also latched onto the hoax. KOCO 5 News in Oklahoma City ran a segment claiming that the app could be a danger to children and falsely claiming that Gas tricks children into sharing their information. KOCO 5 News did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The baseless claims started to have a serious effect on Gas’s business. Bier said on one day, 3% of the apps’ users deleted their accounts. During the weeks of Oct. 17 and Oct. 24, as the rumors gained traction, downloads plateaued, according to data from SensorTower.

Spammers and threats

Gas’ social channels have been spammed day and night by users calling the team sex traffickers. The company’s revenue, dependent on subscriptions and in-app purchases, plummeted. Currently, when a user searches “Gas app” on Google, they’re served auto complete suggestions including “Gas app kidnapping” “Gas app dangerous” and “Gas app human trafficking,”

The four-person Gas app team has been subjected to 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. “The messages are very detailed, and they’ll send like 150 of these messages because they’re so angry. We have had emails saying, ‘What you’re doing is disgusting, and I’ve reported you to the FBI.’ We get countless messages every day from users about it.”

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

Countering the rumor has become nearly a full-time job for Bier. He stays up until midnight every night, when the app store refreshes, and tries to respond to the barrage of reviews slandering his company.

“The app grows on its own, but dealing with the hoax requires a lot of labor,” he said.

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

Human trafficking survivor and advocate Eliza Bleu tried to swat down the conspiracy theories on Twitter. On Oct. 20, actor and investor Ashton Kutcher, who is not an investor in Gas but co-founded Thorn, a nonprofit that builds digital tools to defend children from sexual abuse and fight child sex trafficking, posted: “Gas app is not involved in trafficking humans.”

“We originally thought, who would believe this? This doesn’t make any sense,” Bier said. “The challenge is that you can only fight memes with memes. If it’s not easily screenshottable and exciting, it’s not going to get more visibility than the original message.”

What Bier and his team are up against is something much bigger than just a silly rumor, said Whitney Phillip, an assistant professor of digital platforms and ethics at the University of Oregon. Since the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory — precursor to the QAnon movement — took hold in 2016, false claims of sex trafficking have been rampant. “The broad-based narrative of children in danger is really pervasive culturally right now,” she said.

“To understand why this particular app is being targeted,” Phillip said, “you have to understand that the most present and visible narrative is that nefarious groups are doing terrible things to children. It becomes an easy way to direct attacks against any individual or organization.”

Experts offer a variety of explanations for why sex trafficking rumors plague consumer social apps, ranging from deep-seated fears about child safety to surging distrust of technology and institutions, a decline in news media literacy and the rise of social platforms, where rumors can spread quickly from geographic area to geographic area.

“The whole idea that there’s this nefarious ring of groomers and sex traffickers is a viral idea in the zeitgeist,” said Emily Dreyfuss, co-author of Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America. “Everyone is really nervous about what’s going on with their kids, what they’re up to and what they’re exposed to. Then comes this app that’s viral only among youngsters, and parents and teachers don’t understand it at all. It’s the perfect conditions to create a moral panic.”

Teaching media literacy

That panic can spread especially fast in today’s media climate. Several Gas users who spoke to The Post said they didn’t even consider Googling to see if the claims about Gas were true before sharing the sex-trafficking rumor. The ones who did Google said they didn’t trust the mainstream news articles that said it was a hoax.

“What we have is a crisis of trust. A lot of people see a fact check and don’t trust the media doing the fact checking,” said Ziad Ahmed, founder and CEO of JUV Consulting, a Gen Z research and marketing firm.

Bier’s peers in the industry recommended he seek out a crisis PR team to help navigate the crisis, but Bier said it would be “useless” because almost no one understands the modern media landscape young people are living in.

“There’s no way to combat that with press,” he said. “There’s no channel for the message to get distributed because [teenagers] are not reading the legacy news.”

Self said he was skeptical of the sex-trafficking rumor from the start, but he recognized why many of his classmates wouldn’t be. “The thing is that boomers will believe everything they see on Facebook, but people born in my generation will believe anything they see on TikTok,” he said. “They won’t verify it at all, they won’t Google it. They see it and they don’t question it a little bit.

“I think it should be something that’s more encouraged if not outright taught in school,” Self said of media literacy. “A lot of [people] don’t know how to learn things and how to distinguish rumors from fact.”

Bier said that this crowded and confusing online environment is, ironically, one reason Gas became so popular. The app allows kids to share how they feel about each other and express vulnerable feelings without even having to type.

“It’s really uncomfortable to compliment people, to open up to people,” he said. “I think it’s really sad that there are so many amazing things about all of us that go unstated our entire lives until our eulogy. I think this app provides a channel to do that in a way that feels safe and anonymous.”

Taylor Lorenz, The Washington Post

Dave Schatz in Los Angeles on Nov. 2.
Dave Schatz in Los Angeles on Nov. 2.(Linnea Bullion / For The Washington Post)
Nikita Bier in Los Angeles on Nov. 2.
Nikita Bier in Los Angeles on Nov. 2. (Linnea Bullion / For The Washington Post)



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