Social media has become very prominent as a tool in the search for missing persons. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and more recently TikTok are being used to raise awareness for issues regarding missing persons and searching for those who have gone missing. Publicity appeals aim to elicit information to help locate the missing person, to appeal directly to the missing person to make contact, to support families, to raise awareness of the missing issue and to memorialise the missing person (Holmes, 2017). The aims of publicity appeals are the foundation of assessing the effectiveness of a publicity appeal on social media; the higher the engagement - the more effective an appeal is perceived.
Viral publicity appeals can result in trolling/cyberharassment comments which can negatively impact the families of the missing person and the missing individuals themselves. In the UK, charities such as Missing People do a fantastic job at monitoring the appeals and deleting comments which may negatively impact the missing person who may see their own appeal and their respective family. The next issue with gaining high levels of engagement or going ‘viral’ is the general public providing misleading information regarding sightings which can impact police resources in following up on potential intelligence gathered from appeals. This was made very apparent in the most famous UK case with Madeleine McCann where almost 9,000 sightings were reported.
Engagement and social media
When using social media to appeal to the public, many tactics which are often used on social media to increase engagement are not appropriate for missing persons appeals. When examining viral content what we do see being supported through empirical research is that when posts go viral this leads to higher intentions to join charities, support charities and will generally result in a desirable activity (retweeting and sharing). Yet, the formula for viral content often involves emotive content. One study found that negative messages are shared at higher rates. Humour is also frequently used to increase engagement with the public, for example Australian police using a ‘meme’ strategy to promote engagement. This in turn results in difficulties for organisations trying to increase ‘viral’ content (content with high number of shares/retweets) when seeking help from the public. However, one of the main issues in researching effectiveness of viral or appeals that gain large levels of shares/retweets is that the end result of sighting data is unavailable to link the success of finding that missing individual in relation to the appeal on social media.
It is clear that social media platforms have great reach and capabilities for spreading information and communicating with the public in a cheap and efficient manner. However, it is worth considering the human right to privacy which can often be compromised in the process. Yet, the paradoxical nature of wanting appeals to gain engagement and potentially go viral becomes apparent in these instances. With the protection of missing vulnerable children and adults in mind, the balance between acting for the safety of the vulnerable missing person and respecting the right to be forgotten can become blurred. Having their appeal posted on social media platforms although great at raising awareness for the missing issue also leaves behind a digital footprint. There are also appeals which are often posted on Twitter and Facebook which are not being removed in a consistent manner which also contribute to the digital footprint of the missing individual.
What we do see internationally is that the practice of releasing appeals and aims of appeals remains to be the same. On social media (mainly Facebook and Twitter), appeals share the first and last name, age, physical appearance, location/last seen and date went missing - please see examples for Australia, USA, UK, China and Canada. Although considering digital footprints for missing persons is strongly considered in the EU due to GDPR 2018 Article 17 which introduces ‘the right to be forgotten’, this legal option is not available in other countries.
Legal protections - RTBF
With reference for the EU and the UK, The right to be forgotten (RTBF) generally refers to having the right to remove personal information from the internet, also known as ‘the right to erasure’. This information is usually understood as information which was previously public but personal. In the UK the main legislation which offers its citizens the right to remove their personal data from the internet is the Data Protection Act 2018. However, this notion of RTBF has not come without controversy which states that RTBF would be censoring the internet and limiting freedom of information. Outside of the European Union and the UK, there is no clear legal protection for missing persons who wish to remove their names and images from search engines and social media frameworks. Argentina alongside the EU has legal protection for their citizens, however other countries are discussing and in the process of determining legal frameworks (in countries such as South Korea, India, China, USA, and Canada) for the right to be forgotten. As such, it is important to take into consideration whether removing appeals efficiently with no digital traces should also be considered as an aim for publicity appeals.
When considering all of this, measuring effectiveness of social media appeals becomes complex because of the inappropriate strategies to increase engagement via social media platforms and trying to promote privacy for vulnerable individuals who go missing. Do we measure success through high engagement? What if an appeal has three retweets but provides a sighting? With the protections of privacy, or lack thereof, is it also worth including protection of the missing vulnerable individual as well. When releasing an appeal in a time of crisis it can be difficult to take into consideration the complex factors relating to the individual and their protections, however it is clear that this field of study has much work to contribute to promoting good practice and understand all the positives and take into account the negatives of publicity appeals being posted on social media and on the internet.
Lecturer in Cybercrime and PhD student
University of Portsmouth