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Social Media Spread the Story of Washington’s Missing Girls. It Also Got It Wrong

6 minute read

The news pricked at the deepest fears of Washington, D.C.’s black community. Between March 19 and March 24, a dozen black and Latino children were declared missing by police in the nation’s capital. The story spread like wildfire on social media, as images of the kids popped up in haunting succession on the police department’s Twitter feed. “All these missing black girls coming from D.C. And Maryland!!” one Twitter user wrote. “Where is the public outcry??”

Missing persons reports are always frightening. But the wave of disappearances in D.C. stirred a sense of anger that police had not done enough to publicize the case. At a March 22 meeting held by city officials at a charter school in southeast D.C., community members demanded answers from officers. “We can’t go nowhere by ourselves,” an unnamed woman told the crowd through tears, according to a report by the city’s WJLA. “We can’t do nothing without being worried about somebody trying to take us.”

Members of the black community also perceived a racial dimension to the scarcity of news coverage. Black children who go missing receive less media attention than white kids, says Natalie Wilson, who runs the Black and Missing Foundation. Wilson and her sister-in-law Derrica founded Black and Missing in 2008, after the disappearance of Tamika Huston, a 24-year-old woman from Spartanburg, S.C., went largely unnoticed by national media. A 2016 analysis of online coverage of missing persons published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found some evidence that cases involving white women not only draw more attention, but more intense coverage. (The late journalist Gwen Ifill once dubbed the phenomenon “missing white woman syndrome.”)

Activists say social media can help close the coverage gap, providing a way to publicize the disappearance of minority children and jolt the police into action. “It’s instantaneous. You do not have to wait for the normal news cycle to share information, and you can reach anyone nationwide,” says Wilson, whose organization uses Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share reports. “Social media is that bridge to the community for us.”

But in the case of D.C.’s missing black children, social media also distorted the story. Information shared by Washington police with the intention of informing the public was compiled by a popular Instagram account, Entertainment for Breakfast, into an inaccurate post that claimed 14 girls had gone missing in Washington in a 24-hour period on March 23. That post went viral, causing celebrities like Taraji Henson, LL Cool J and Viola Davis to sound the alarm. Many “regrammed” the post, sharing inaccurate information even after Entertainment for Breakfast removed the erroneous data from their account.

In fact, D.C. has witnessed a slight decrease in the number of reported missing persons, according to police commander Chanel Dickerson, who heads the youth-and-family arm of the department’s investigative division. Police say that over the past five years there were 200 missing persons reports every month, this year 190 cases have been reported on average each month. According to Metropolitan Police Department statistics, there have been 534 missing children reports in Washington so far in 2017, a statistic the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says is on par with most cities. As of March 27, just 14 cases of missing juveniles remain open in D.C., including Shaniah Boyd, a 14-year-old black girl last seen March 18; 15-year-old Dashann Wallace, who went missing March 8; and 17-year-old Demetria Carthens who went missing in February.

The official statistics change daily and cases involving missing children are often complicated. The mother of Dayanna White, 15, told D.C.’s Fox5 her daughter ran away on her own accord, possibly because of cramped conditions in their home. Vaneshia Weaver, an 18-year-old who was reported missing, told WUSA9 that she had been in constant contact with her social worker. “I’m not missing,” she said.

Dickerson says the department is using social media to be more transparent about reports of “critical” missing persons, which include two especially vulnerable categories: kids under age 15 and adults older than 65. Eleven of the open juvenile cases are deemed critical missing persons. As a result, the police department’s Twitter feed may have inadvertently suggested an epidemic of missing black children was unfolding across the district. The confusion illustrates how social media can be spread inaccurate or alarming information without full context.

It’s happened before. After the 2014 shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a movement emerged out of the narrative that Brown had been shot while surrendering. But the coroner’s report and an independent autopsy from the shooting painted a murkier picture. The facts of Brown’s shooting became less important than the calls for police accountability. The rallying cry “hands up, don’t shoot” dominated conversations on social media. Even after authorities questioned the facts surrounding Brown’s death, the distrust for police sown by that incident persisted, shaping the discussions that followed future police shootings and, indeed, creeping into online discussions about the missing teens in D.C.

Wilson, of Black and Missing, says while it’s critical that people share accurate information media, the simple fact that people are paying attention in cases of missing children is important. “ I don’t want this to be some type of fad where everyone is jumping on board and then they move on to something else,” Wilson says. “This is real. This is happening in our communities.” In 2016, around 38% of the more than 400,000 juveniles recorded as missing by the FBI were black. A recent analysis by Essence magazine found that as of February 2017, there were 8,042 active missing persons reports for black girls under 18. African Americans make up just 13% of the U.S. population.

While D.C. officials found themselves working overtime to dispel myths about the volume of missing children in the community, Dickerson says social media has been a helpful tool for police as they work to solve cases of missing youths. “We have gotten assistance from hospital staff, other D.C. government employees, Uber drivers and just other community members that have helped us reunite these girls with their families quicker,” she said during a recent Facebook Live interview.

The social-media outcry is one reason why Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a slew of new programs aimed at improving the district’s response to missing youth. Among them are a task force to help locate missing youth and better address issues that lead young people to run away in the first place. Bowser has also instructed police to assign more officers to find missing kids.

“One missing young person is one too many,” Bowser said, vowing to “do more to find and protect young people, particularly young girls of color, across our city.”

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