Social Media’s Role in Finding the Missing

Police and other government agencies are using social media heavily to share information about missing people.


Police are increasingly using Twitter to share information about missing people with New Yorkers. In 2014, the New York City Police Department launched a social media campaign to include civilians in ongoing investigations, both to catch criminals and find the missing.

Field commanding officers from individual precincts and specialized units like the Missing Persons Squad oversee the more than 100 Twitter accounts, aimed at raising public interaction with the police.

“If a person goes missing, commands make initial notifications on social media. Then posters are made,” said Zachary Tumin, deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives and leader of the NYPD’s social media efforts. “As that information gets retweeted by police and the public, word spreads very quickly to be on the lookout for that missing person.”

Tumin considers the NYPD’s new initiative to be an uncontrolled experiment. It took time, he says, for commands to gain followership from New Yorkers they wanted to connect with. Initial followers were mainly reporters and members of police departments from around the country.

“First year results aren’t in yet, but I think we’ve been successful. We currently have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and we have to take advantage of that going forward,” he said.

The NYPD’s Twitter campaign comes three years after the creation of its Facebook page, which currently has more than 380,000 likes. Tumin expects all police officers to be issued their own smartphones in the next year or two; that will help them push out information quickly.

Before social media, spreading the word about the missing was hampered by limited outreach to those in direct position to help. Amber Alerts were mainly broadcasted on television, radio and on highways. Distribution of missing posters was also limited, only displayed in communities in which the individual was last seen and or lived.

Now, organizations like National Center for Missing & Exploited Children can increase the likelihood missing children are found thanks to more immediate and full-range awareness raised on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These social media platforms have 1.2 billion, 288 million and 300 million monthly active users, respectively.

“Our social media properties allow us the ability to geo-target our missing children’s posters. In doing so, we are able to reach people who may be in a direct position to help,” said Ashley Iodice, spokesperson for the National Center.

In March, the non-profit ramped up video production across all its social media platforms and launched videos that feature family members of lost children. Center staffers find video posts to be more effective than those with a photo and written description of the missing child.

“We have found that video elements in the digital media space garner more viewership, which we believe will help in finding more missing children,” said Iodice.

Facebook, in partnership with the center, started showing Amber Alerts on user’s newsfeeds in January to further aid in searches. An alert appears if a user is in the same location as a recently abducted child. Alerts, however, are rare and most users will never see one.

Timothy Griffin, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada at Reno, is skeptical that using social media can enhance the life-saving effects of any missing persons system, but is hopeful he can be proven wrong.

“The constraints to the effectiveness of AMBER Alert, in my opinion, are not technological they are criminological,” said Griffin. “For the system to work the abduction needs to be reported immediately and the alert sent out with similar haste. But this hardly ever happens.”

 Photo by Levi Sharpe

NYPD Missing Persons Squad

NCMEC: Amber Alert

Griffin has conducted extensive research on Amber Alerts and has concluded that Amber Alerts have no real effect on whether a child’s life is saved. He believes, however, social media does have a role to play in the finding of missing children if the child is not in any real danger.

“Social media outlets are all about rapidly disseminated information, so in cases where its simply a matter of recovering a missing child – and not a race against time to save a life– I can see the likely benefit.”

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