Social media’s impact on missing persons cases

YBinvestigates

West Texas (ABC Big 2/Fox 24) – If you scroll through your social media account and see a missing persons report, it’s not something to brush off.

“When we actually take a missing person’s report. it’s because there’s more than just somebody hasn’t been able to be in contact with a family member or friend or something like that. There’s usually something more there that would lead us to believe that somebody is in trouble, somebody is hurt, something like that,” says Midland Police Deputy Chief Greg McCright.

Investigators need to spread the word as fast as they can. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says social media has been a game changer.

“The main thing about social media is that anybody can use it. Anybody can get the word out, and anybody can get the word out quickly,” says NCMEC Communications Director Angeline Hartmann.

Those we spoke to also agree that because it can be used at any time, sometimes it can make chaos for a case.

“Let’s say you did put that picture out there, and you shared it and you hadn’t called a law enforcement agency. Well when they’re looking at that child, or they’re looking at that elderly person, they’re going to call a law enforcement agency and say, ‘Hey we saw this on social media.’ If law enforcement has not been notified, then they don’t know what’s going on either. So it would help not create so much havoc when someone is found,” says Odessa Crime Stoppers CEO Susan Rogers.

It’s best to give your local police department or sheriff’s office a call first.

“Most people do the right thing, it’s just, you know. When someone goes missing you panic. I mean, you panic, and you want to get it right out there. Not saying don’t do that, just make sure you follow through with law enforcement. So that law enforcement agencies have that information,” says Rogers.

Even with the right intentions, passing along misinformation can take away from an investigator’s time.

” There’s times where we’ve had some interference happen. It’s usually not an intentional thing, to try and interfere with an investigation. Again, there’s a lot of emotions in this, and people want to quickly find where their loved one is at, “says Deputy Chief McCright.

Information that has not been updated can also be bad to spread around.

” Is this new information? Are you sharing a post that’s old? So all of those need to be kept in mind, rather than just hitting that button and sharing. People have that responsibility when they’re sharing and they have to know that,” says Hartmann.

When people don’t take the time to look at what they’re sharing, it can create confusion.

“We’ve gotten tips where someone shares a post that’s a missing person out of Minnesota, which has absolutely nothing to do, they’re not thinking they’re in West Texas or anything like that…and people really start sharing that post. However, they’re leaving out the fact that it’s not in that area. It won’t say that it’s in Minnesota, its from Florida. It’s a child that went missing an hour ago from Florida. If it’s an Amber Alert, it’s a whole different story,” says Rogers.

” And maybe by sharing this, you’re stirring up some kind of trouble. You’re stirring up a whole bunch of stuff that would just be bad for the case, and bad for this family,” says Hartmann.

It can also damage your credibility.

” Once you’ve shared it, you’re vouching for the authenticity of it. So you should absolutely make sure that the things you share are factually accurate,” says UTPB Communications Professor Bill Harlow.

Professor Harlow adds that there are questions you can ask yourself before you share a post.

” Is this source credible? Has this source given me accurate information in the past? Does it jive with what I know on a common sense basis? Is this consistent with the reality around me? And then verify it,” says Professor Harlow.

Here are some tips to make sure you can be a helpful community member in a missing person’s case:

  • Read through the entire social media post
  • Check the dates of the case, and whether there are any updates
  • If the missing person has been found, be sure to share that on your feed(s)

” I know it’s real easy these day for people to see a story , it’s really emotional in what’s given, and you want to share that with your group so other people can be looking for them. We just want to make sure it’s the right information that’s going out,” says Deputy Chief McCright.

People who have worked on missing persons cases say the best way to help your loved one is to give investigators a clear, up-to-date photograph of your loved one, and to let them know about any identifying features that could help find them.

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