Fourteen girls disappeared in DC over 24 hours. At least that’s what recent a viral Instagram post claimed. A square of pixels shows young girls of color, a couple are smiling, but most have calm faces like any of us look on a regular day. Black faces. Latina faces. Human faces. Of course it caught like wildfire. Social media isn’t in the business of pacing itself. And under the assumption that these girls were abruptly abducted, it shouldn’t pace itself. One child gone missing is one too many.
“An Instagram post claiming 14 girls had disappeared in D.C. over a 24-hour period went viral across social media Thursday.” - NBC Washington
The number and time frame was insane, yet I wondered if there was a kernel of truth to it. Minority breaking news suffers from two extremes: there’s either not enough of it, or it’s sensationalized. And I don’t take soundbites seriously. American culture is driven by clickbait. The catchier or crazier the headline, the faster it spreads. “12 Ways to Save Money” versus “The Benefits of Spending Less Than You Earn.” Same topics, but the 12-step quickie is going to get the most clicks. A closer look at information is ignored because it can be long and tedious. Most people don’t read as it is--they’re not going to read a lengthy article online. But I try to.
I found a frank article on BuzzFeed, which is ironic because BuzzFeed built its brand on memes and listicles. Over time, it’s worked its way to one of the top trending news sites, giving their readers both fun and facts. Journalist Julia Reinstein wrote, “Police have tweeted 20 missing person fliers since March 19 (10 of which are for minors), which have led many to believe the number of missing persons has dramatically increased--however, DC police told NBC Washington this is not true.”
DC police have waffled on whether or not to tweet breaking crime news. Last May 29th, 2016, they halted the practice. “The department has now decided to take most crime alerts off Twitter and instead will document mayhem primarily through an existing notification system run through a city Internet site [...] the idea is to streamline the agency’s various social-media accounts and avoid duplication.” I’m not sure what was meant exactly by avoiding “duplication,” but my guess is it was to avoid giving anyone else ideas. I also think it was smart because the rapid sharing of information from Twitter often causes misinformation. If a news outlet picks up an immediate tweet with a typo, runs it, and a correction isn’t posted until minutes later, there’s conflicting information which makes it all less reliable.
Despite this, many major police departments actively use Twitter to post breaking news. The Washington Post article continues, “Taking breaking crime news off Twitter goes against the practice of many major departments, which have used the platform both as a public service and a public-relations tool. Still, there’s debate about what kinds of information to post to Twitter.” Two days later, the DC department backtracked. “Although the crime alerts continued to be available through a city-run Internet site that requires registration, some critics said that the decision to stop posting the news on Twitter reflected a lack of transparency just as violent crime was edging upward.”
It’s a tough call. Using any social media is a double-edged sword. It’s fast. And crime moves fast. It thrives on stealth and speed, and law enforcement needs to be just as quick to alert the public. Twitter is just one of many tech tools that can be used to do that. However, the inevitable problem is that anyone can use these platforms and spread false information just as easily. So how did the story of these missing girls shoot ahead of the truth?
“It's no accident that we hear so little about missing black girls in this country.” - Shaun King
Shaun King gained popularity advocating for Black Lives Matter. He’s also the senior justice writer for the New York Daily News and uses social media heavily to promote activist causes. On March 22, 2017, Shaun wrote an article about how missing black girls get little to no media coverage compared to white girls.
He uses Natalee Holloway and Elizabeth Smart as examples. “This is not an accident. Thousands and thousands of young black girls and women are missing all over the country, but most people can't name a single one of them. I asked a few people this morning, just as a test, if they could. They couldn't. They didn't even know that anybody was missing.” His article continues with names of missing black girls and the dates since they’ve been gone. The pictures are the same as the current viral Instagram post, but these girls have been gone since 2011.
Shaun King called for reason via his Twitter account the next day. He wrote, “Dear People Advocating for Missing Black Girls, please be sure you are spreading the truth and actual facts. It matters. It really matters. These photos were taken from a story I just wrote, which is fine, but many of these girls are not from DC and have been missing for years.”
Julia’s BuzzFeed findings confirm some key facts that have been missed in the social media flurry. “DC police told USA Today that an average of 200 total people have been reported missing each month for the past five years. This year, the average number of cases per month has been 190.” There’s not an explosion of missing black girls, in this case, it’s a combination of social media and misinformation that makes old news seem like it happened overnight. And, overall, there’s been a decrease in reported cases. The DC police Commander Chanel Dickerson also said, “The 211 people who went missing in January did not reflect an increase in cases, Dickerson said, just better reporting by the families.” However, in this is the heart of the story.
"We had a 10-year-old girl missing the other day, but there was no amber alert..." - Trayon White
Robert Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said to CNN, "Our frustration is, we deal with a very desensitized public. The natural inclination (about a runaway) is the child's behavioral problem is why they've left. We also see significant numbers of runaway children who are running away from a situation, whether it's abuse or neglect or sexual abuse in the home." Whether the missing child is a runaway or abused, law enforcement can only act on information that they have. If families don’t report their child missing right away (or at all), there is little to no chance the child will be found.
There are different reasons for why a minority family might not report their child--many universal. If there’s abuse in the home, they don’t want to expose that. If the child does have behavioral issues, why call the police every time? Another reason for underreported disappearances might be because families assume few resources will be available to them. Trayon White, a DC city council member told CNN, “What the community is alarmed about--we had a 10-year-old girl missing the other day, but there was no amber alert. We just feel like, you know, if this was a white person or from another neighborhood, there would be more alarm about it." BuzzFeed cites data from the Black And Missing Foundation that shows 36.7% of missing people under 17 are black. “Very few of these cases receive widespread media coverage--especially when compared to the ‘missing white woman syndrome’ that often follows the disappearance of white women in the US.”
This information isn’t to pit white women against women of color. It’s to bring home the point that news media reflects social bias. A girl next door who goes missing generates more attention than a black girl from an impoverished neighborhood. “(W)hen children of color go missing, authorities often assume they are runaways rather than victims of abduction." Lawmakers added in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey. They asked the officials to “devote the resources necessary to determine whether these developments are an anomaly, or whether they are indicative of an underlying trend that must be addressed."
"Everyone should be angry that this is happening in our community, but our community needs to step up and take action.” - Sharece Crawford
Another reality is that these girls are also susceptible to gang involvement or the sex trade. Sharece Crawford, a member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in southeast Washington, said “What we need is a citywide alert about the dangers out here and how parents can protect their children. They are wondering if the city is taking this seriously. They say things like, ‘If white girls were disappearing uptown, there would be a state of emergency.’ Everyone should be angry that this is happening in our community, but our community needs to step up and take action.”
Despite hasty origin of the original Instagram post, a larger story about human value has been brought to light. It didn’t happen in 24 hours, but 14 girls are missing. What’s turned out to be important is the fact that it’s taken six years for us to learn about it. We need to hold our authorities accountable when safety is overlooked. It sets a precedent and a tone for further crime. "I think the narrative is good," Robert Lowery said. "The more the public becomes aware of this issue of missing children, the more lives that can be protected and potentially even saved."
If the Instagram post spurs people to advocate for more minority safety awareness, that’s a win. But more than likely, the post will work the social media circuit and fester in outrage and lack of facts until the next big deal. And that next big deal will probably also be cobbled together from Tweets, Facebook posts, or Instagrams.
As watchers and readers, we need to be aware of the spread of this misinformation and try to look into at least a couple more sources of information before we jump the gun. The whole story is rarely found in exclamation points, bold font and 1000 likes. It benefits truth telling, which we want from everything, but will never get if we don’t know how to identify it.