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Social media’s impact on missing people

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The topic of missing people rarely surfaces unless it is a high-profile case, such as the Madeleine McCann investigation, if it is within the community or if it spreads throughout social media. Often the latter tends to be the most common. 

Despite missing people not being at the forefront of everyone’s minds, statistics illustrate that roughly 180,000 people are reported missing every year in the UK. One in 200 children will go missing and one in 500 adults will go missing. It should be noted that this is nowhere near an accurate depiction of the current number of missing people as many cases go unreported and cases can fluctuate due to the political and economic climate. For instance, there was a spike in the number of missing children cases over the course of the current coronavirus pandemic. This was a result of cuts being made and lockdown rules being implemented. Therefore, there is no exact number of how many people, both children and adults, go missing, but what can be stated with certainty is one missing person is one person too many. 

Benefits of social media

As the world becomes more technologically advanced, naturally, technology such as social media has begun to play a huge role in everyday life. Social media can be a good outsource of information and a way to aid investigations of missing people.  

If an individual is to share an image of their missing loved one, this image has the ability to go viral in a matter of minutes. This was exactly what happened to Tony Loftis’ daughter who ran away from home. Social media was used to locate her and safely return her to her parents when she was found in the hands of a 42-year-old sexual predator. 

The problem of social media

Although social media can create this awareness and aid the investigations of missing people, it can also cause many issues. 

There have been instances where the location of children with a parent – whether mother or father – have been compromised as the other parent posts images of their family in a cry for help to locate them. Social media does what it does best and allows the image to go viral and one individual can reach out with the location of the family and unintentionally jeopardise their safety. 

Similar situations have arisen with parents who have their children either in foster care or adoption. They search for the child or children, completely ignoring protocol, by posting images of them online so the public can aid their investigation. Those who have adopted children are aware that this could be the worst outcome as those children were put up for adoption for a particular reason and that should be respected. 

These scenarios and cases are endless. They do not just end with children. Adults can also be running or hiding from an abusive relationship or a broken home.

For this reason, social media becomes a nightmare as it can cause havoc on an individual or a family’s life. They may not want to be found, they may have a reason for leaving, they may even be placed in a worse situation if found. This is why it is detrimental to emphasise how sharing posts on social media regarding missing people can be dangerous. 

Internet trolls and bullies

Additionally, another problem faced can be internet trolls and bullies. This can mentally affect the family and friends of the missing as well as the missing person if they are to read the messages. A lot of false information can be presented and lead police on an unnecessary and timewasting wild goose chase. 

It can also give predators the information they require to conduct their own investigation and take advantage of the situation. 

Arguably, it can be said that the positive elements of finding someone outweigh the negative impact of sharing missing people on social media. However, this can be easily rebutted as who is to say one person’s life matters more than another. Therefore, the question to ask is, should we post or share missing people’s information online?

Police Investigations

Police have stated that in a missing persons investigation the first 72 hours are crucial. For a child the first 24 hours are considered the ‘golden hours’ when it comes to locating them. This is why social media plays such a big role. Information travels around social media in an instance. However, before you press the retweet or share button these are some things you can do to prevent further issues. These include:

  1. Think before you share
  2. Check if the missing person is actually missing and the police are concerned for their whereabouts too (this can be done by checking police twitter pages as well as Interpol list of missing people and/or genuine missing sites such as https://www.missingpeople.org.uk/
  3. Only share genuine police appeals and authorised charities acting on their behalf 
  4. If you do see someone featured in one of these ‘missing child’ posts contact the police – not the Facebook user. You should do this whether you believe the post to be genuine or malevolent. If you have seen them, then it is possible others will have too, and it is important that the police have an opportunity to safeguard them should they need to. 

Always be wary of ‘missing people’ posts as the last thing you would want to do is put another in harms way. This goes for both children and adults. 

If you are reporting a missing person, it is highly recommended that you follow the internet safety guidelines before doing so. This way you can protect them and yourself. 

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