COM 0011 – Random Thoughts on the Use of Social Media for Missing Children Alerts

It may just be because I have a daughter about the same age than
2 year-old Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette, but last week’s HaileyAmber Alert and the tragic discovery of her remains really struck me.  My Facebook account was inundated with photos of the missing toddler and I remember thinking how fascinating it was to see how social media influence our lives… and how far we’ve come from the blurry monochrome pictures on the milk cartons I grew up with!

Although I’m reticent to use social media in all aspects of my life, I must admit that this type of case truly engages people and helps return missing children to their worried parents. I was curious to see how social media are used for missing children investigations, so I looked into this  particular case in more details…

First, I tried to find the original Amber Alert on Twitter. I couldn’t find any official Amber Alert account for Alberta like we have here in Ontario (@OPP_Coordinator). But after a few searches, I figured out that the alert was sent out by the RCMP Crownest Pass Detachment (@RCMPAlberta) through traditional media (online news release and subsequent updates) and then by Alberta EmergencyAlert (@AB_EmergAlert) on their website and Twitter.

Although I’m not surprised by the news release, which seems still fairly efficient, I thought going through Alberta Emergency Alert was… strange… Honestly, I was expecting a dedicated ˝missing children alert˝ site/page/acount, not a site containing all emergency reports pertinent to Alberta!

I wonder if the RCMP uses news releases first because it’s their most efficient means of communication with the public and the media or if it’s out of habit… I have to admit it was great to get those official updates all in one spot; it must be very useful for the media. The RCMP in Alberta did not initiate the tweet about the Amber Alert, but only re-tweeted the Alberta Emergency Alert. I wonder why they did not use all their means of communications at the same time to maintain their leadership for the investigation and to channel all the information back to them directly…

The use of a hashtag (#ABAMBER) seemed to work well on Twitter. I assume there’s not enough missing children cases in Alberta (which is a good thing!) to warrant an Amber Alert Twitter account, but I’d love your thoughts on the usefulness of the hashtag #ABAMBER… Isn’t it a little generic and weak? For example, a friend pointed out that any of our followers in the US could have thought that AB referred to Alabama…I’m also wondering if there is an advantage to use a hashtag rather than a handle, in terms of stats… I guess I’ll have to do some more research and wait till I get to future lessons on measurement! 😉

And I think I kept my most intersting find for the end : I stumbled upon an article talking about a new program launched less than a year ago by Missing Children of Canada, which seems to encompass the major social platforms all the while working with law enforcement organizations and public/business engagement : The Search Program™ or Milk Cartons 2.0™. milk cartons Basically, when law enforcement organizations send out an alert, this Program uses various social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Four Squares, etc.) as well as search engines to “advertise” missing children cases online, just like our milk cartons. I think that if this program really gets the support it deserves, there’s good chances that we’ll find more of our missing children thanks to social media and public engagement.

Josée

Side note : did you know that you can sign up to receive Amber Alerts the moment they come out, directly on your cellphone? This is definitely a good public engagement initiative, but is it the best platform? I mean, as a member of the public, would you rather signing up for these alerts or simply re-tweet or share a message or Facebook?

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