Social Media Used as a Tool in Missing Persons Investigations

By Mohammad Mujahed

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio-Finding missing people is very challenging. According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System website, “Over 600,000 individuals go missing in the United States every year.”

In 2018, 424,066 of people reported missing in the United States were children, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Social media is something that reaches many people around the world. It can be used as a great tool for finding missing people.  Many U.S. police departments are starting to use social media sites to investigate crimes and other social problems. The Urban Institute, a nonprofit research explains in the article, “2016 Law Enforcement Use of Social Media Survey” that “Roughly one in five agencies reportedly started using social media as part of their official operation in 2012.”

For the relatives and friends of a missing person, social media can also be used to help them identify clues and leads that they can share with law enforcement officials in charge of the official investigation.

In Youngstown, the police department has started using social media to investigate reports of missing children.  Those involved could give people good tips and sometimes wrong information. Pages like Facebook can aid law enforcement officers in finding missing persons by spreading the word of missing persons cases on a global level.

How Social Media is Used to Investigate Missing Persons Cases

Facebook has become a common platform for people to create Missing Persons pages, due to its wide-spread usage across the world with more than 2 billion users, according to the Pew Research Center.

According to Facebook’s Safety Center website, law enforcement can gain access to information on missing people shared via Facebook with relevant legal process documents, such as a subpoena or a court order, in compliance with federal Stored Communications Act regulations.

Although people can set up individual pages for missing persons, there are also Facebook pages that post about numerous missing persons cases.

Lori Davis, who is the creator of a Facebook page called,Missing Person from Ohio posts about most missing people persons cases in the state of Ohio.

Davis created the page to publicize missing persons cases across Ohio, using information she finds via the Ohio Attorney General’s Missing Persons website, the FBI missing persons website and other online missing persons resources to regularly update the page.

“I try to provide attention to all cases because so many receive little to no media attention,” Davis said.

“The purpose of this page is to publicizing missing person cases regardless of age, sex, or race.”

Davis explained that mass exposure to a missing persons post on social media can help spread awareness about a missing person.

Debbie Manning is the Founder of National Center For Missing And Endangered, INC. 

They currently have a Facebook page that posts information on missing persons information on a National level.

Manning explains how her Facebook page is used to post about missing persons reports.

“Our mission is to raise awareness on the amount of missing person Cases across the United States,” Manning said.

Her Facebook page, which has over 20,000 followers, has been successful in spreading the word on many missing people.

“Since we began operation on November 2018, we have showcases over 43,000 missing person cases,” she said.“Social Media is an excellent tool in advertising these missing cases and we have found that the quicker we can get these cases out to the public, the quicker these people can be found or located.”

In the state of Ohio in 2017, there were approximately 20,043 missing children reports. According to the Ohio Attorney General’s office, among the 20,000 reported children missing, 630 were reported missing from Mahoning County.

The missing persons section of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office website states that the average age range of missing children in the state of Ohio is 13 to 17 years old.

Posting missing children information on sites like Facebook can help.

“Many of the posts can go viral and reach up to 300,000 people,” Davis said. “Many cases have been solved due to the right person seeing the flyer and calling the authorities.”

Davis’s work has seen some success as she claims that her Facebook page has helped find some missing people.

“Our page has been involved in helping locate many people,” Davis said. “We have published so many missing [persons] and had their flyers go wild,” she said.

Davis said that after posting a missing persons flyer on her page, sometimes the same night or next day the missing person is located, due to the right person seeing their face and calling in with information.

This includes an instance in December, 2018, where a child from Ravenna, Ohio, had allegedly been kidnapped by his father – Davis said publicizing the child’s details on her Facebook page led to fast-spreading awareness of the child’s case.

Soon after, reported sightings came in and the child was found and returned safely to his mother. The child’s mother posted a message on Facebook, thanking all those who had helped spread the information about her missing son and credited the websites actions as one of the reasons for the child’s safe return

Adam Earnheardt, chair and professor in the Department of Communication at Youngstown State University, talked about the importance of social media and why it is a great tool.

“Social media connects us to people we would not usually connect to,” Earnhardt said.“People who would not be involved in a search party could be a part of a search party through social media.”

How Government Agencies Use Social Media Pages to Find Missing People

State government agencies, like the Ohio Attorney General’s office, agree that social media is a good tool to use to help missing persons.

Steve Irwin, senior public information officer for the Ohio Attorney General’s office,explained how they use social media to help people give out leads regarding missing persons to law enforcement.

“The Ohio Attorney General missing persons unit uses social networking sites, along with public records and law enforcement databases, to help locate [missing persons],” Irwin said.“Social media is one tool utilized by law enforcement to spread the message about a missing person.”

Police detectives Sgt. Nicholas Bailey and Sgt. Hannah Short, who both work in the Family Service Investigation Unit for the Youngstown Police Department, explain why social media can be valuable in solving cases.

The Youngstown Police Department’s Crisis Intervention/Juvenile Unit recently created a Facebook page for missing children or runaways called Youngstown Police Department: Crisis Intervention/Juvenile Unit.. Short runs this page.

Bailey explained why he believes social media is a great asset to the department.

“Social media is what everyone has today,” Bailey said.“It’s a great way to search for people, informally – it spreads like wildfire.”

Bailey said that social media is like an Amber Alert but more people pay attention on social media. He stated that social media is most popular among the young generation who have their own social media pages.

Short explained the basics of social media and how different platforms are used when investigating missing persons.

“More people get to see it[missing persons posts on social media] and report on it and give us the location of the person,” Short said.

“For investigations, it’s an awesome tool for gathering information that is public knowledge,” Bailey said.

Davis said social media is great for police departments, especially in missing person’s cases.

“Law enforcement using social media is great,” he said“It is a free resource that can help people who would otherwise not be aware of the missing person now be on the lookout for them.”

The Impact of False Leads and Information on Missing Persons Investigations

Social media is filled with many followers and people who spread a great deal of information, not all of it verified. This means that false information can spread easily and quickly, and misinformation can potentially ruin a police investigation.

Brookings Institution which is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC.

The Brookings Institution has 300 leading experts in government and academia from all over the world, who provide the highest quality research, policy recommendations and analysis on a full range of public policy issues.

In his article, How misinformation spreads on social media—and what to do about it,” Chris Meserole explains why it is so challenging to isolate false information.

“It’s not often that a user will share both accurate and inaccurate information about the same event, at nearly the same time,” Meserole said.

In regard to police investigations, Short said that misinformation can be a significantly negative issue within the department and can lead investigators in the wrong direction.

Although she believes social media can be a valuable tool for investigators, Davis said she knows that social media can also interfere in the work of law enforcement officers because some users give out misinformation, and this can be a burden to these officers when investigating leads.

“Any time hundreds of thousands of people realize there is a missing person, it can bring great results and it can bring up some nuts and wild theories,” Davis said.

Earnhardt said that false clues posted online can quickly give misinformation to police; especially if a certain situation is breaking. However, Earnheardt believes that most people who are pushing false information often do not mean intentional harm.

As an example, Earnhardt cited social media activity during the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. During that time, many people were posting wrong information to social media, which gave wrong leads to police officers.

Earnhardt said this could also apply to a missing persons report, but that police today have better technology to know what is false and what is not.

“If you can take a swathe of posts on Facebook, law enforcement agencies and detectives can crunch all that data down and pinpoint something from all the posts,” Earnheardt said.

The Importance of Missing Children

According to the Facebook help center page, Facebook reports all apparent instances of child exploitation appearing on their site, from anywhere around the world, to the NCMEC.

Bailey believes that children are some of the most vulnerable missing persons because they are sometimes the victims of an adults’ careless actions.

“A juvenile usually raises more of a concern [when they go missing],” he said.

The Juvenile Unit Facebook page,(run by the YPD),posts up-to-the-minute information on missing and runaway children in Youngstown. Bailey said posts to this Facebook page have led to finding many runaway or missing children.

The Ohio Attorney General’s office assists in finding missing children in many ways.

According to the 2017 Missing Children Clearing House Report, the Attorney General’s Missing Persons Unit assists in  issuing endangered Missing Child and Endangered Missing Adult Alerts, collaborating with other agencies on the issuance of AMBER Alerts, analyzing social media, public records and law enforcement databases to help locate children, offering a free program to collect DNA from families of the missing for possible use in making identifications, providing training to law enforcement, other professionals, and the public, and giving investigative guidance, resource recommendations, and assistance.

Many missing people are being found because of social media platforms that post their information, like the YPD and Davis’s and Manning’s missing persons page.

They have positive results like Davis said about her page.

But Social media also has its fair share of false information.

For the law enforcement officers in Youngstown, social media it is the key to the future for investigations.

“Social media is the future and whoever is not using it is ignorant,” Bailey said.