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The Potential Power of Twitter For Missing Persons Investigations

Updated: Feb 10

Think of the last time you saw a missing person poster. Not an emergency AMBER Alert sent to your phone, but an actual photo, description, last known location poster. Was it stapled to a telephone pole? In your mailbox? On a Walmart wall? Maybe, but there is a greater chance it was on social media. Over the past few years, social media has become an increasingly useful resource for police when trying to track down missing persons.


In 2019, 73,184 Canadians were reported missing (Canada’s Missing, 2019), with the actual number of missing persons estimated to be around 100,000 people when accounting for unreported cases and data quality. When someone is reported missing, it becomes a race against the clock as police try to get as much information available out to the public to aid in the search. All of the time sensitive tasks of the cases assigned officer, including but not limited to collecting and gathering information on the missing person and the circumstances of their disappearance, distributing the information, arranging search parameters, and arranging a family press appeal, often must be performed on top of the officer’s regular duties. By enlisting the publics help via social media, we can decrease some of the burden on the officers and help reach more people in a shorter amount of time than one officer could alone. Getting the public’s help with tasks that would normally require costly use of police resources also ends up reducing costs. Aside from police resource benefits, it all ensures more eyes are on the case and are helping with leads, and location and search efforts. Then, social media is used in missing persons cases to notify the public and enlist their help in circulating the information, making appeals for information, giving case updates, and broadcasting family press appeals.


Recent Research on Twitter Use for Missing Persons Investigations:


Ferguson and Soave (2021) posited that Facebook and Twitter would be the most effective social platforms to share the information about the missing person and make appeals for information, as both of these platforms allow you to share the information directly from the source (i.e., police) or original poster (family, friends, etc.). They are also highly accessible to the public as they are free and relatively user friendly. Being able to share directly from the source ensures the public are getting the true and objective information about the case, with no ‘spin’, and quickly too. As we have seen, especially in the last year, different news outlets can report the same story in so many completely different ways, spinning and manipulating the story to fit their narrative. When the police are the ones sharing the information, they maintain control over the information and delivery of the posts. By enlisting public help from these posts, not only can it reduce both the need and amount of police resources used, but it can also reduce strain on the officers, allowing them to focus deeper on other specific aspects of the case.


There is no official standardized template for a missing persons tweet, so its format comes at the decision of the police agency/officer posting it. There is evidence that tweets can be effective, but there had previously been no in-depth research to understand what made them effective in Canada. Then, Ferguson and Soave (2021) decided to study missing persons tweets, to help police maximize the efficacy of their tweets, and save as much time, money, and resources as possible. They analyzed tweets from 15 Canadian police Twitter accounts with the highest follower count, bearing in mind that high follower counts does not guarantee high follower engagement (the number of followers that interact with the tweet by ‘liking’ ‘replying’ or ‘retweeting’). Analyzing all 15 departments’ missing person tweets between May 2017 and May 2019, they determined the following:

  1. Tweets containing an image of the missing person were 41 times more likely to produce high engagement than those that did not include a photo, and tweets that included age garnered 5 times more engagement than those who did not.

  2. Some departments over-relied on links. Tweets that included links, directing followers to a site with the full missing person report, garnered significantly less engagement. This could be because tweets with links do not include a photo or much information about the case because they assume people will follow the link (they do not).

  3. Some tweets offered very little information on the missing person, severely decreasing the tweet’s engagement and reach. With the departments possibly relying on follower count alone to spread the information, 66% of the tweets analyzed did not contain an image, which as we have discussed, greatly decreases interaction rates.

  4. Many tweets included limited details of the missing person either because of limited understanding of what components are essential for high engagement or departments having little information available to them. Surprisingly, tweets that mentioned just age and gender garnered less engagement, but as previously stated, most posts that included age and gender also did not include a picture so that may be confounding this finding.

If we connect the Ferguson and Soave (2021) study from the Canadian Context to an earlier international study by Solymosi, Petcu, and Wilkinson (2020), we begin to notice similar findings. Solymosi and colleagues (2020) also mention the bias of traditional media coverage, in regards to who receives more attention and how the story is portrayed; both studies conclude that the most effective way to prevent this is for the information to come directly from the police department involved. Additionally, both studies agree on some of the essential features for rendering high engagement, with Solymosi et al. (2020) making note of the benefits of the “time and timelessness of a tweet” being a factor. The latter authors also discuss using both sentiment and hope in the tweet and explicitly asking the followers if they have seen the person, and to retweet.


Comprehensively, both studies conclude that the words used and information shared (or not shared) in missing persons tweets have the potential to drastically improve or hinder the case; both offer data that can be built upon to further refine the most effective template for these tweets. This means that Twitter has great potential for use in police missing person investigations, but that it may not be being used most effectively currently.


Ultimately from recent research on how best to use Twitter for police missing person appeals, we can conclude that the ideal standardized components for a missing person tweet to likely bring about higher public engagement is:

Image of the missing person + information on incident + hashtags + no link + lower character count = greatest likelihood of follower engagement


Following this does not guarantee success by solving the case or even gaining information, but the metrics of these study’s prove this has the potential to greatly increase those chances.


A Word of Caution:


The Ferguson and Soave (2021) article touches on a possibly overlooked point in missing person research, overexposure. It may seem counterintuitive to worry about overexposure when the goal is to get as many people as possible searching and aiding in the case, but more is not always better. The risk of overexposure does not concern just one case, but missing person posts as a whole. An excessive number of tweets about the same or different cases runs the risk of desensitizing the audience, leading to ignored posts and less interaction on each appeal for information. Think about your immediate reaction or action the last time your phone got an emergency missing persons AMBER alert. Have you yourself already been desensitized to the matter? Overexposure can also lead to subsequent overreporting. This can result in hypervigilant reporting of tips and suspected sightings by citizens, which often, unfortunately, end up leading nowhere, and result in wasted time. Where is the line between wanting to look into every lead possible in the pursuit of solving the case, and being cognizant of insufficient time, resources, and expenses to follow every tip? This certainly requires future investigation.


Conclusion:


So, what do we do with this information? Well, by developing a standardized template for police to follow when making a social media post about a missing person, police will have, statistically, the best chance possible at gaining useful information, while saving money and resources along the way. It also increases the chances of locating a missing person in the quickest possible time and in the best possible condition. The more eyes, the better. If something as simple as following a handful of steps to create a tweet can hold the possibility of a solved versus unsolved case, it is imperative to begin education and implementation within departments. This also offers a unique chance at reducing the chances of missing persons cases going cold, as a result of increased chances of engagement, information, leads, etc., keeping the investigation alive. Over time, by possibly reducing the number of missing persons cold cases, it will amount to even greater financial and resource savings, allowing more focused time and resources to be spent on cases as they happen, giving them the greatest chance at being solved.



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Writer: Abbey Anthony

Abbey Anthony received her B.A. in Criminology from Western University in 2021. During her time at Western she has completed two years of the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, which she plans to continue in next year and is excited to enter the world of Forensic Nurse Investigation. This year Abbey has had the privilege of working under Dr. Michael Arntfield as a member of Western’s Cold Case Society, a select group dedicated to researching and investigating cold cases.