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Frida Sofia, the Victim Who Wasn't

Donate After the 2017 earthquake in Mexico City, rescuers dug through the rubble for a little girl named Frida Sofia — who never existed.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under General Science

Skeptoid Podcast #810
December 14, 2021
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Frida Sofia, the Victim Who Wasn't

The 2017 Puebla earthquake hit Mexico on September 19, 2017. The magnitude 7.1 quake killed 370 people and injured thousands. Most of the casualties were in Mexico City, and amid the destruction, a four-story private elementary school building collapsed. 19 children and seven adults were killed. For days, rescue workers combed through the rubble, hoping beyond hope to find survivors, and the entire nation watched on television. All of Mexico prayed as rescuers inched ever closer to a buried 12-year-old girl named Frida Sofia. And then, after two days of constant reports and updates on the girl's condition, including conversations the rescuers had with her, it was reported that Frida Sofia had never existed. There was no little girl buried in the rubble.

Outrage came swiftly. Many Mexicans were incensed that in a time of national tragedy, the TV news had given them two full days of pure fiction. Danielle Dithurbide was the reporter who was most visible throughout the rescue ordeal, and most of the hate fell onto her social media profiles. Her network, Televisa, wanted to know what had gone wrong. The government wanted to know what had gone wrong. And, most of the all, the Navy — which in Mexico, is the coordinating command authority for rescue efforts such as this — wanted to know.

Some facts came out right away to explain what was broken that let this staggeringly wrong reporting make it onto television. Most importantly, the Navy had no information officer on hand. There was, in fact, no control at all over information getting to the press. Danielle Dithurbide was the only reporter allowed beyond the cordoned off area, and she spoke freely to every rescue worker that she could, and that was the primary source of information. The facts — such as they were — were just in the air, for anyone to contribute to, and for anyone to pull from and report. And the facts got incredibly specific.

Frida Sofia had told one rescuer that she was trapped with five other children, and this was reported. Another rescuer saw some fingers, and upon calling to Frida Sofia to move them, they moved. One who spoke with her reported she said her name was "Sofi, Sofi." Some rescuers told the reporters that water was being delivered to Frida Sofia through a long hose. A Navy official appeared on TV with several rescuers who had found Frida Sofia using a thermal imager, and one explained how they were able to verify it was a human thorax.

While the Navy was failing to control the information, they were at least asking around with the parents and school officials. It soon turned out that everyone was accounted for, that no grieving parents on scene were missing any daughters, and that the school had never had a student named Frida Sofia. And that was when everything fell apart. Televisa apologized, but the nation wanted answers.

Finding those answers is what constitutes the bulk of the writing that's been done on this event. Failures of the process, steps needed to insure that it doesn't happen again, ways to guarantee that information will flow through authorized parties in the future. It's all about fixing a broken process. And while that is obviously important, it's not the part of the story that interests us here on Skeptoid. What we're most interested in is how this misinformation cascade spread and had everyone on scene convinced there was actually a little girl in there; but most of all, how it got started. What is it that those rescue workers saw, heard, or experienced that created the false beliefs they passed on to the reporters?

Almost incredibly, Frida Sofia happened 32 years to the day after a nearly identical event, also in Mexico City. On that day, a magnitude 8.0 quake struck and killed more than 5,000 people. In that case, it was a 9-year-old boy they were digging for in the rubble, while Mexicans were, again, glued to their TV sets for days, watching and hoping and praying. This little boy had told the rescuers that his nickname was Monchito. As they dug closer, it was reported that they were finally in voice contact with him. And then, just as it happened 32 years later, the news came that there was no Monchito, and everyone denied ever having been in voice contact with such a boy. How was the Monchito case explained? A psychologist went on the news and said it was most likely a case of collective psychosis among the rescue workers.

So what exactly is a "collective psychosis", and might it be part of the explanation for what happened with Frida Sofia? There are a couple things that psychologist might have been referring to, and neither one of them is a fantastic fit. First is what we call a shared psychotic disorder, which is almost always between two people in a close relationship — also called the folie à deux. This starts with one person who has a legitimate psychotic disorder with delusions, who then influences their partner, usually a romantic partner, who adopts and accepts the delusion. Sometimes it can spread to more than just one person — a classic example being a cult leader who honestly believes that he's Jesus, and facilitated by the very tight bond he has with his romantic partners and/or closest followers, they accept that delusion and are equally convinced of it. This is not a great parallel for Frida Sofia.

Another thing he might have meant is a mass psychogenic event, but this usually refers to a nonexistent medical condition. The most familiar example in today's headlines is so-called Havana Syndrome, where during a period of extreme work-related stress, a few American embassy workers in Cuba felt ill, and reported having heard strange sounds at about the same time — sounds now known to have come from at least three different types of crickets and cicadas. Their only symptoms were nonspecific and common: fatigue, pain, headaches, nausea. Word spread, and suddenly everyone with any of those symptoms who had also heard the cicadas all began attributing them to what somebody suggested must have been a sonic or microwave weapon of some undiscovered type. This, also, doesn't have very much in common with the Frida Sofia case.

If I lie to you and tell you I'm 25 years old, and you have no reason to disbelieve me, we wouldn't say that you're delusional or psychotic. You've simply been given wrong information, and you might well pass it along with the best of intentions if somebody asks you. Realistically, this is probably the most that can be said of Danielle Dithurbide and the other reporters, and the people at their press outlets who broadcast the shows and wrote the articles. In fact, nearly everyone on the scene who heard about the little girl and passed on the information to others probably needs no diagnosis other than having had wrong information.

But if we follow the pyramid of misinformation higher — to the one who saw the fingers move, to the several who looked at the thermal images, to those who passed the water hose to the little girl, to the one who heard her give her name and age — a more complex explanation may be needed than simply being wrong.

The environment there was highly stressed. The rescue workers had been pulling out the bodies of crushed children. Most workers were probably traumatized and in fight-or-flight mode, clinically known as the acute stress response. This state can make us prone to errors, as our bodies and brains focus in on bare survival. Everyone desperately wanted good news, and when someone overhears that they're using a hose somewhere (perhaps to suppress dust), and also that little Frida Sofia must be thirsty and in need of water, it would not at all be unexpected for a worker to think he heard that they're using a hose to get water to the little girl — even to state that when a reporter asks for any updates. Keep in mind the big failure in communication of the event was that reporters were getting information directly from rescue workers, and not through any formal pipeline.

It's noteworthy that one of the Navy rescue dogs onsite was named Frida. It's not inconceivable that someone could have overheard that Frida is down in the rubble pile, or that "her name is Frida," and assumed the name of a girl victim was meant. For every specific fact that was reported about Frida Sofia, we can come up with many possible ways that it could have been an honest misinterpretation of something overheard. Combine that with reporters hungry for any tidbit they can get, and with the lack of an organized protocol for providing verified information to the press, and the whole Frida Sofia event becomes less surprising.

But even this cascade of miscommunications is not the only possibility. With the workers in the acute stress state, human psychology provides even more avenues for fallibility. There is a condition called a brief psychotic disorder with marked stressors. Delusions and hallucinations are both possible in healthy people with no prior history, triggered by a markedly stressful event, and followed by a complete recovery to normal function. I don't argue that this took place, but it certainly could have. A rescue worker down in the tunnel might actually see and hear things that weren't there.

As a quick but important side note, the Frida Sofia case and its various possible explanations that involve various types of psychosis are a good reminder that mental illness takes many forms, and they don't mean that you're crazy or that you're some kind of nut. They can even be completely transient like these examples would have been. Especially when a scary word like "psychotic" is involved, we tend to stigmatize the condition, and that's neither justified nor deserved. One of the multiple good lessons we can take away from Friday Sofia is that all mental illnesses, even psychosis, are best considered when they are normalized, not stigmatized. So often driven by trauma, they can happen to you and to your loved ones, sometimes when you least expect it.

So even though we're leaving the Frida Sofia case with many unanswered questions, there's one thing we can say with a high degree of confidence. Almost certainly, there was not one single explanation for the source of the misinformation. Maybe the psychologist's diagnosis of "collective psychosis" did explain some of it. Certainly the passing along of bad information was part of it. Maybe some misunderstandings and miscommunications, and jumbling together of things overheard, explained some. Maybe the brief psychosis condition impacted some workers' actions and experiences. And in all likelihood, something else was at play that escapes me and that escaped the newspaper reports. The conclusion we can make with confidence was that this was a complex situation, with many different phenomena at play among the many people involved, all of whom had complex interactions. The fact that the same thing had happened with Monchito tells us that such a combination of phenomena is not unique. This did not all boil down to "one" single explanation that lays out what went wrong. When you see a paper that purports to give a single explanation for the Frida Sofia episode, be skeptical, and safely assume that the single simple explanation is almost certainly misleadingly incomplete.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Frida Sofia, the Victim Who Wasn't." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 14 Dec 2021. Web. 27 Jan 2022. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4810>

 

References & Further Reading

Brandoli, J. "El falso rescate de la pequeña Frida." El Mundo. Unidad Editorial S.A., 21 Sep. 2017. Web. 5 Dec. 2021. <https://www.elmundo.es/internacional/2017/09/21/59c4177222601ddd118b45ff.html>

Cruz, M. "Monchito, the invented child of the 85 earthquake, is revived by the false case of Frida Sofía." El País. Ediciones El País SL, 22 Sep. 2017. Web. 4 Dec. 2021. <https://verne.elpais.com/verne/2017/09/22/mexico/1506033846_630238.html>

Flores, H., Hernández, V., Villanueva, A. "Comunicación Gubernamental Responsable en Situaciones de Crisis: El Caso de Frida Sofía." Perspectivas de la Comunicación. 12 Aug. 2019, Volume 12, Number 2: http://dx.doi.org/10.4067/S0718-48672019000200127.

Rannard, G. "Mexico earthquake: Girl who captivated the nation never existed." BBC News. BBC, 22 Sep. 2017. Web. 2 Dec. 2021. <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-41359331>

Salazar, D. "Frida Sofía o los peligros de la televisión en directo." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 4 Oct. 2017. Web. 8 Dec. 2021. <https://www.nytimes.com/es/2017/10/04/espanol/opinion/frida-sofia-o-los-peligros-de-la-television-en-directo.html>

Specia, M. "Frida Sofia: The Mexico Earthquake Victim Who Never Was." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 27 Sep. 2017. Web. 1 Dec. 2021. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/27/world/americas/mexico-earthquake-trapped-girl.html>

 

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