A missing 16-year-old girl was rescued in Kentucky on Thursday after someone noticed her using a hand gesture, popularized by TikTok, that is intended to be a signal for help.
The driver spotted the distressed teenager in a car driven by an older man, making the signal as they rode down I–75 on Thursday.
"The complainant was behind the vehicle and noticed a female passenger in the vehicle making hand gestures that are known on the social media platform ‘Tik Tok’ to represent violence at home – I need help – domestic violence," according to a statement from Laurel County Sheriff John Root.
The "Signal for Help" gesture, which involves tucking in the thumb into the open palm and closing the four other fingers over the thumb, was initially developed by the Canadian Women's Foundation in partnership with media agency Juniper Park in April 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a way for domestic violence victims to silently show they need help on a video call.
But the meaning broadened, said Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the Canadian Women's Foundation, largely thanks to viral TikTok posts of actors role-playing various scenarios where women used the signal to call for help.
"I think this is the most powerful example of it," Gunraj told BuzzFeed News on Monday.
After the driver called 911, authorities arrested the 61-year-old man and charged him with unlawful imprisonment and possession of material that allegedly showed sexual content of a minor. Laurel County Sheriff’s Office PIO Gilbert Acciardo told BuzzFeed News the girl was taken to a nearby hospital, where no injuries were reported, before she was reunited with her family. The sheriff’s office was not familiar with the hand signal prior to the incident.
COVID lockdowns fostered potentially dangerous environments for domestic abuse victims. Experts described in a February 2021 study that the pandemic stressed existing factors that lead to intimate partner violence, including financial and emotional strain, and the proximity of victims to their abusers made it more difficult to seek help.
"It spoke to a hidden issue," Gunraj said of the hand signal campaign, which took off quickly. The foundation's initial YouTube video now has over 1.7 million views. Research by the foundation found that 1 in 3 people in Canada knew the signal by July 2020, Gunraj said.
She said it "blew her mind" when she started to see TikTok creators use the foundation's instructional footage and add their own music and captions.
Many of the viral TikToks show actors role-playing various scenarios where women used the signal to call for help and usually feature a creepy viral audio track called "Elevator" by user @fwtdvadim. The TikToks, spread through hashtags such as #stophumantrafficking and #abusivehome, demonstrated how a bystander should respond after seeing someone make the gesture.
"What has heartened me is to see people from different communities reuse and remix this in their own communities in a way that makes sense for them — we know it can't be a one-size-fits-all approach," Gunraj said.
The team that developed the signal wanted something "low key" that a person could do with one hand. They also didn't want a signal that stood for anything in another language and consulted American Sign Language experts to make sure the gesture wouldn't cause confusion.
"It's important for this to be seen as a survivor-led approach to facing a situation where some people can't say no," said Gunraj, adding this is vital for victims who often feel their circumstances have been taken out of their control.
There are two other known cases of the signal being successfully used. Earlier this year, YouTuber Om Sayf, who has over 5 million subscribers, made a video in which she said she would be quitting YouTube and made the hand signal. Authorities later confirmed Sayf was safe, Gunraj said.
In another instance, a person told the foundation they saw a young person use the signal in a Zoom call, and after, they followed up and made sure that young person got the help they needed to address a situation of family violence at home, Gunraj said.
But it's hard to quantify how many times the signal has successfully saved someone, Gunraj said, because domestic violence is a "hidden pandemic."
She emphasized that the hand gesture is just the first step to help someone out of an unsafe situation, and the foundation is launching a toolkit on Nov. 25 to help people know how to react when they see it.
"The signal itself is not the action," she said. "The action is all of us being aware of gender-based violence and being nonjudgmental responders ... We have to be ready to respond."
Ikran Dahir contributed reporting for this story.