It is 10:30 p.m. You’ve just gone to bed when suddenly your phone starts ringing loud – it’s an orange alert. Most of us don’t take the time to click on the link to find out more, and if we do, the information isn’t always useful. If it shows the make and model of a car to look for, I probably won’t recognize it because I don’t know what each type of car looks like. And the photos of those released with an alert, if any, are of poor quality.
While I never felt like an Amber Alert gave me enough information, I do know the faces of missing people in social media cases. The use of these platforms makes it possible to easily and widely disseminate information on missing persons. Information on missing persons provided by law enforcement should be directly integrated into our feeds in order to better inform the public.
No good tools for important work
The longer a missing persons case lasts, the lower the victim’s chances of survival, especially for missing children. In 76% of child homicide cases, the victim died within three hours of abduction and in 88.5% of cases the victim died within 24 hours. Over time, memories fade and the evidence degrades, making the first 72 hours of a case even more critical to ensuring a safe return.
Yet few tools exist to properly alert the community when someone goes missing despite the need to act quickly. In Utah, we have two types of missing persons alerts. We use Amber Alerts for children 17 and under who have been abducted, and we use Silver Alerts for adults over 60 with dementia. That leaves a void for Utahns between the ages of 18 and 59. And while there is an emergency alert system for missing adults, Utah does not use it.
In June 2021, a Utah woman was found after being abducted because police mistook her small size for a child and sent Amber an alert. The alert saved her life, but if the police had known that she was in fact 30 years old, she may not have survived.
Additionally, the community has to “sign up” to learn anything, which is another major flaw with these alerts. Despite signing up for these alerts, I had to research them myself or click on a link to find useful information.
When I see a money alert on a freeway sign, I have to look it up and look for a photo of the missing person. When I get an Amber alert I want to click on the link, but sometimes I forget. These tools allow the community to search for the information on their own, meaning that someone who sees something important may not know it because they haven’t taken the time to search for the alert.
The faults of social networks
With the limits of missing persons alerts, social media has started to play a vital role in disseminating important information about these cases. We saw this recently with the Gabby Petito case, but other cases have been helped in part by social media.
When little Lana Lowther went missing in Ohio in February 2016, a man saw her face on social media and took a different route home just to watch her, and found her crawling in the snow. Local police said his vigilance after seeing a social media article about Lana likely saved his life.
However, misinformation is rife with the coverage of missing persons on social media. In Petito’s case, for example, countless theories about what happened to her have surfaced online, including rumors that Petito is pregnant. These were debunked by the publication of his autopsy, but demonstrated the downsides of social media coverage.
While the dissemination of false information can sometimes be harmless, it can also hinder an investigation. Misinformation can lead to false information which the police are wasting their time investigating. It can also lead to public vigilance on bad things.
Social networks as a warning system
Social media has the potential to help missing people return home or get answers for missing relatives of families – if we use it correctly. Today, 72% of Americans use some form of social media, and on average, we spend about two hours a day engaging with it. If we logged in and saw the faces of the missing people or vehicles that we were to search for, we would all have more information to help you.
Social media sites should create avenues for local law enforcement to reach and disseminate information about missing persons. Amber Alerts are transmitted by radio and our cell phones. Social media has become an important part of life and we also need to start posting missing person information on our feeds.
This would not only allow our communities to see exactly what they should be looking for, but it would ensure the veracity of certain information disseminated on social media. Law enforcement would check publications and release the most critical information they want the public to know
Americans care about missing people. This is evident from the way people searched for answers for the Petito family. It’s evident in the way a man from Ohio took a different route home one day to search for a missing child. We just don’t have the information to actively help bring the missing people home.
Social media sites have a responsibility to coordinate with law enforcement to help resolve missing persons cases. We have a way to fill these gaps left by current warning systems, so let’s take advantage of it.