Untapped Potential: Can TikTok be Used For Locating Missing People?
With COVID-19 and the current stay-at-home orders, I’ve recently (and shamelessly) become a frequent user of TikTok, a social networking app that shares videos of daft dances, new trends in fashion, life hacks, and news and recent events from around the world — essentially anything that can be imagined. Something that popped up on my ‘For You Page [#fyp]' — a personal feed of videos catered to a user by way of an algorithm — is a video of a missing adult alert captioned ‘He’s out there. Please help…’ with the hashtag ‘#missingperson.’ The amount of public engagement with this video struck me: 1.3 million likes, 13.5k comments, 49.8k shares, and over 2 million views. I was shocked only because recent research on Twitter engagement with missing person appeals revealed that most tweets were engaged with around 100 times. This means that very few Twitter users shared, commented, and/or liked the missing person tweet. The significant differences in public engagement across these two widely used social media sites is certainly notable. Then, one has to wonder: does TikTok have untapped potential for locating missing people and/or in missing person investigations?
For highlighting some potential pros, let’s look at TikTok’s statistics and user profiles compared to Twitter...
According to a recent Business of Apps report from across 2019 to 2020:
TikTok had 800 million active monthly users, 1.65 billion downloads, and 1 billion video views per day. This is over two times more than Twitter across these categories. For example, Twitter was reported as having 340 million users as of the end of 2020;
41% of TikTok users were noted as between 16- and 24-years-old, of which 56% were males and 44% females. Roughly 50% of TikTok’s global audience is under the age of 34-years-old, with 26% being between 18- and 24-years-old. For Twitter, the breakdown is 66% men and 34% women, with 44% being 1 8- to 24-years-old;
90% of TikTok users visit the app more than once per day, which is said to be increasing each month. In contrast, Twitter use has been declining since 2019 and hit an all time low at this time; and
TikTok users spend an average of 52 minutes per day on the app, whereas Twitter users spend an average of 3.39 minutes per day on the app.
I know that’s a lot to take in. There’s also much more to learn about TikTok that could be important for the purposes of this conversation and comparison. So, you can find this report here.
Altogether, the above comparisons show that TikTok could hold great potential for achieving broad community outreach and high engagement across videos showcasing missing person appeals. To expand on this, the higher number of active users, more frequent use of the app, longer length of time users spend on the app, and increasing number of users highlight that using TikTok for missing appeals has the potential to reach a greater number of people compared to Twitter. In fact, the public engagement with missing appeals on TikTok appears to be higher than that of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram combined — all of which are commonly used social media sites for police, media, community organizations, and others to post a missing persons appeal for the purposes of bringing in the community and reaching more people to assist with the case. As well, there is a stronger global audience on TikTok in contrast to other social media platforms.
Why is community outreach and high engagement (and potentially global reach) important? From a policing perspective, for example, police-community relations and ties can be strengthened and police resources allocated to missing persons cases can be lessened. From other perspectives, engaging the public in missing persons reports has the potential to result in: 1) more leads to explore so as to ensure an exhaustive search and investigation occurs, 2) more eyes looking for the individual, 3) different people in different areas searching, so increasing the spatial scope of the search and investigation, and 4) fresh perspectives contributing potentially new or different approaches to resolving the case, among others. Lastly, in relation to global reach, while most missing persons cases in Canada are located in close proximity to their place last seen and their city of location, this widespread scope could bring about additional opportunities for assistance in these cases from across borders (i.e., new or different resources), as well as introduce other connections and collaborations to help locate missing people.
Another likely pro is that, with the demographic profile of TikTok users being mostly that of youth and young adults, missing appeals on TikTok then are more likely to reach the group that makes up the highest proportion of persons reported missing in Canada: youth and young adults. Put another way, persons reported missing in Canada are mostly youth and young adults, so TikTok could be used to connect with people in this age group and/or their networks to get in contact with, hear from, or even locate a missing youth or young adult. The audience of TikTok similarly being the age range of most missing people in Canada also introduces another possible opportunity for the field of missing persons: targeted education, prevention, and reduction evidence-informed efforts through TikTok towards this group. (Evidence-informed was included here as it needs to be clear that I am not advocating for running programming on TikTok that is not evidence-informed). To this end, ultimately, TikTok may represent one possibly fruitful avenue for broadly reaching this age group.
Other than the demographic profile, potential for high engagement, and global and national audience, what else can TikTok offer? Well, when all is said and done, it would represent another tool in the toolbox to use for locating missing persons. By utilizing this free social media sites that a large amount of the public are already plugged into and engaging with, there is potential for more eyes to be on the case looking for the individual and, ergo, greater chance at finding a missing person quickly.
TikTok use for missing appeals, of course, doesn’t come without some potential cons. First, a recent Hub blog by Abbey Anthony talked about over-exposure of missing person appeals. This is where too many missing appeals results in the public essentially becoming desensitized to this information, inundated with missing persons reports, and, in turn, primarily ignoring the posts/videos/tweets/etc. What this means is that, by posting missing person appeals across several social media sites, concerns arise over over-exposing the public (who missing person appeals are trying to reach) such that they may not want such posts/videos to be on their feed, thus scrolling past them and ignoring their contents. There’s also privacy concerns with sharing missing appeals broadly that have yet to be addressed in recent research. One such instance of this is that the broad dissemination of a missing individuals information and picture could be viewed as problematic. As something to think about: how would you feel if over two million people viewed a TikTok containing your details featured as a missing person alert? This is one area requiring inquiry across all of the social media platforms though, and is something that might see further regulations in the future. Another potential con is the format, purpose, and use of TikTok compared to Twitter. TikTok is primarily for entertainment purposes, whereas Twitter is often used for microblogging and social networking. So, the general use and format of TikTok might not be suitable or compatible for missing person appeals. Then again, so could the use and format of Twitter not be appropriate for missing person appeals. This is yet another topic in the field of missing persons that not much is known about, especially in the Canadian context. Lastly, there's the issue of engagement with videos of missing persons hinging upon it being noticed by a number of people, meaning that TikTok users algorithm's could either hinder or bolster search and investigation efforts.
In sum, all of the above being said, we don’t currently know about the potential use of TikTok for missing persons appeals. As such, no definitive conclusions can be offered. This blog does provide some possible pros and cons as food for thought, though. In theory, it seems like it could have untapped potential for the field of missing persons given TikTok's user profiles, higher engagement, and widespread reach. But, I won't give the green or red light to using or not using TikTok until it is research-backed that it is either useful or not. That is, we need to test this and track engagement, effectiveness, usability, and TikTok's other characteristics as a way to assess its potential for missing persons reports. This could involve a police service partnering with a researcher to showcase missing person reports and track their outreach and engagement. Or, it could involve examining existing missing person appeals on TikTok and comparing them to other social media sites. There are many ways researchers could approach this topic. What can be conclusively said, though, is that it warrants investigation.
Writer: Lorna Ferguson
Lorna Ferguson is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Western Ontario, Canada and is the Founder of the Missing Persons Research Hub. Lorna has a broad interest in policing research and developing evidence-based approaches to policing and crime prevention, including issues related to firearms and social media use. Currently, she focuses on police responses to missing person cases.