Why is this called 'virtual kidnapping'?

The crime itself is horrific -- beyond comprehension in its cruelty -- so there's some hesitancy to complain about semantics. But this is a technology blog and the underlying issue -- society's tendency to blame modern-day bad deeds on technology instead of the bad-deed doers -- is an important one.

From this morning's New York Times:

The phone call begins with the cries of an anguished child calling for a parent: "Mama! Papa!" The youngster's sobs are quickly replaced by a husky male voice that means business.

"We've got your child," he says in rapid-fire Spanish, usually adding an expletive for effect and then rattling off a list of demands that might include cash or jewels dropped off at a certain street corner or a sizable deposit made to a local bank.

This is "virtual kidnapping," the name being given to Mexico's latest crime craze, one that has capitalized on the raw nerves of a country that has been terrorized by the real thing for years.

The word virtual, of course, has come to take on several meanings in the technology world, but perhaps the one most commonly understood by your average newspaper reader is "on the Internet." Second Life is a virtual world (maybe there are virtual kidnappings there). Those you know only on MySpace are your virtual friends. The ongoing Interop conference in Las Vegas this week is being dominated by talk of virtualization.

None of which has anything whatsoever to do with what's been happening to those terrified parents in Mexico.

So back to the question in the headline: Why is this called "virtual kidnapping."

I'll tell you why: Someone somewhere along the line -- probably a fellow journalist -- decided that "fake kidnapping" or "phone kidnapping," both of which are not only more precise but better convey what actually happens, suffer from not being very "sexy" ... especially when compared to something as hip, here and now as "virtual kidnapping."

You'll notice that The Times couldn't resist the phrase in its headline: 'Virtual Kidnappings' Exploit Very Real Fears.

And while we're parsing, the use of "virtual" that way is simply wrong. The non-kidnappings didn't "virtually" happen -- as in "virtually everyone likes ice cream," or "the planes virtually collided" -- they didn't come close to happening in any way, shape or form.

How many readers to you suppose presumed they were about to read a story involving kidnapping and the Internet? ... Just about all of them, I'd say.

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