By, Alison Poussaint
In early 2017, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) of Washington D.C. began to use Twitter to report and spread awareness of critical missing children cases. More than 200 cases have been shared on the department’s Twitter page, as well as notifications if one of the cases had been closed. Alana Gertz, a spokesperson for the MPD, explained, “If more people in the public are aware, then that’s more eyes on the road for us” (BBC). Since March 19th, the department has shared over twenty missing persons photos, half of whom are missing black and Latina girls from the DC area.
Gertz’s statement holds truth–since March 19th, the reaction to these alerts of the missing girls has had widespread social media coverage. Though people have the right to be concerned about the missing girls, some have reacted histrionically and have spread false information on social media. Celebrities such as LL Cool J have retweeted posts claiming, ‘14 Girls Have Gone Missing in DC in the Last 24 Hours.’ Similar reactions prompted the hashtags #findmysisters and #MissingDCgirls to trend on Twitter. Additionally, other Twitter users declare an uptick in the number of black and Latina girls that have gone missing, claiming the majority have disappeared in recent weeks. This information has caused politicians such as Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond along with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to send a letter to the FBI and the US Justice Department asking the respective directors James Comey and Jeff Sessions to investigate this issue.
The MPD responded to the strong reactions, tweeting, “There isn’t a spike in missing people in D.C., we’re just using social media to help locate them. Sorry to alarm you.” The MPD thus calmed false worries that the girls are being ignored and assured the public that fourteen girls did not go missing in the span of 24 hours; the number of missing girls is unfortunately normal for D.C.
In fact, the number of missing children has gone down slightly in 2017, dropping from 200 cases per month in 2016 to 190 per month in 2017. The vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Robert Lowery Jr., supported this information by stating that the current number missing is ‘about average’ (NYTimes).
Though the issue of missing girls and children in Washington D.C. was of great concern to many around the country, those who saw tweets about the issue a few days later were most likely misinformed. Many people who responded to the girls’ disappearance on social media exaggerated aspects of the true situation. Ruby E. ’17 sums up the issue, stating, “While the recent coverage of the missing girls in Washington DC highlighted the greater issue of missing youth across the country, these updates turned [the issue] into a “fake news” story. Social media has [a] power [that can] start revolutions [but this time the public was] misinformed.” The situation highlights the dangerous disconnect between social media and reality that can sway people’s ideas about vital issues such as the missing girls of DC. Though many were able to express dismay of the situation, they pinpointed a more important issue within the country: the rapid-fire spread of fake news.