The Dangers of Missing Children Hoaxes

Social media can be very useful for friends and families of missing persons. It’s not just another way to get people to take notice of their missing loved one and to keep on the lookout, it can also be a locus of support. There was a recent conference paper which looked at crowdsourcing help on missing persons cases in South Africa and they say:

Facebook can be effective as crowdsourcing system despite the fact that there is no guarantee that missing persons reported there will be found, since it most likely provides much needed emotional support to friends and relatives of the missing person.

I will return to this theme in a later post, but right now I want to offer a caveat: there are dangers to sharing the pictures and details of missing persons – especially missing children – on social media. This is not to tell you not to offer support. Indeed, if you feel moved to support a family going through the horrendous loss of missing a child, I’d encourage you to act on that feeling. But first, there is some due diligence to do in order to ensure that the child pictured will be safe.

Some requests to share are not legitimate. There are incentives for pages on Facebooks to accrue “likes” and “shares” because popular pages can be sold. Fake missing children’s posts are one way in which people can accrue potentially valuable “likes” and “shares”. Cynical? Very much so. Unethical? To say the least. But it happens.

In fact, these scams are one of the more benign reasons why Facebook users share fake missing persons information. There have been worse cases which actively could put the depicted children in serious danger. This story from Sweden provides one example:

The story on Facebook was very touching. A father published a photo of his missing children and asked for help finding them. And thousands helped sharing the post and finally one person recognized the children and let him know where to find them.

The missing information was that the woman was living under protection and with a new identity after leaving the man. Now he found out where she was. She was forced to move again – to a women’s shelter.

 

The article goes on to explain that in situations such as these, the worst-case scenario is that sharing the information about the whereabouts of a child to an abuser may end in their injury, rape, or even death. It’s very important to do what you can to avoid such a horrendous outcome.

There have also been cases in the UK of people using Facebook to track down children they may have put up for adoption. The biological parent(s) might say the child is missing, when really they just want to get in touch while they are living with their adopted parents. In the UK it is illegal to make contact with an adopted child under the age of 18 and so sharing this misinformation is a very serious breach of a child’s privacy and sense of safety.

Protection of privacy is incredibly important. Usually, it’s up to professionals to uphold it – in many industries, you cannot release information about clients; in policing, you can’t just search through people’s things, you need to have just cause and/or a warrant. On social media, the standards aren’t enforced so well. Anyone can post personal information about anyone else and, in turn, it can be shared. Some jurisdictions lack laws around privacy. And yet, privacy can be key to keeping people safe.

Another incident is reported by the UK Bath Chronicle about a photo of an ostensibly missing child with information surrounding her “disappearance” which was being widely circulated on Facebook. It turned out to be a hoax that was made by a right-wing, racial hate group. The poster claimed that a small girl, “is believed to have been kidnapped by an Asian grooming gang”. No record of such a missing child exists. The right-wing group (named “Britons against Left-wing Extremism”) was exploiting the tragedy of missing children to propagate hateful lies, and fear.

So, before “sharing”, “liking”, or otherwise signal-boosting information about a child who may be missing, it’s important to research the case. If you google a name of a missing child, some media report is likely to come up. You can also check the websites of local police or missing persons agency to see if the case is listed there, or else search Interpol.

It’s also a good idea to have a look at the page that created the message. Some pages are known to be complete scams, others are legitimate. Plenty of people who are legitimately searching for a loved one will post from personal accounts, but if you’re unsure, it may be good practice to share missing persons information from pages that are affiliated with a government organisation or registered charity/non-profit organisation.

If you suspect a hoax, get in touch with authorities. Especially if you suspect that a Facebook user is looking to invade the privacy of a minor or anyone whose identity should be protected.

Finally, if you do see a child depicted in one of these messages, don’t contact the user that posted the message. Contact police. The danger of contacting the Facebook user directly is that you may be disclosing the child’s whereabouts to someone who is legally not entitled to know where they are. This can be life-threatening.

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