February 17, 2016 4:58 pm
Updated: February 17, 2016 5:29 pm

The role of social media as a tool to help solve a missing persons case

Using social media to help solve a missing persons case is becoming more common among police and families.

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WINNIPEG — It’s been four days since Winnipeg teen, Cooper Nemeth disappeared. He was last seen early on the morning of Feb. 14 at a house party.

In a desperate attempt to find the missing teenager, his family and friends have taken to social media, asking the public to help find Nemeth. Friends have been using the hashtag  #findcip and created a website to encourage others to share information.

Nemeth’s family has posted to Facebook and Twitter several times, saying they are in “absolutely desperate” need of search volunteers.

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READ MORE: Police looking for two witnesses in case of missing Winnipeg teen

Before social media, spreading the word about a missing person was held up by limited outreach. Amber Alerts were mainly shown on television and radio, and handing out a missing persons poster was usually confined to communities in which the individual lived or was last seen.

Now those who use social media to help solve a missing persons case, can reach a wider audience. Facebook has grown to 1.6 billion users since it first launched in 2004, and Twitter cites more than 300 million active users a month.

Using social media as an investigation tool

“The opportunity to get your message out there is greatly improved with social media,” Global News’ social media expert, Andrew McKay said. “It can spread more quickly than going through a traditional channel, like an Amber Alert or a police press conference.”

McKay added that it’s not uncommon to put up a Facebook post about a missing person, share it, and then hours later see the individual has been found.

READ MORE: Toronto police launch new homicide cold case website to ‘leverage social media’

This is why families, police and organizations like the Canadian Centre for Child Protection are relying more on social media as an investigation tool.

Christy Dzikowicz, Director of Child Safety and Family Advocacy Division of the Centre said its an extremely effective source for the organization.

“Not many years ago it would have been very difficult to get the word out the way we do now,” Dzikowicz said. “Sharing information and getting people engaged is a huge help.”

She credits the declining number of missing children in Canada to the rise of technology. She said three to five years ago, there were around 60,000 reports of missing children annually, but that number has gone down to 40,000 in the last couple of years.

“Technology is a huge reason for that. Parents can reach their kids now, using mobile phones and social media,” Dzikowicz said.

Police are also using it as an investigative tool. Last October, Lethbridge police took to social media to help solve four old missing person cases. The hope was to spread information using the medium, and help receive new leads or even hear from the missing people themselves.

READ MORE: LRPS hopes social media can help solve historic missing person cases

Although social media is the easiest and quickest way to spread information, Dzikowicz warns there are dangers that come along with using it.

Dangers involved

In the case of missing Winnipeg teen Cooper Nemeth, the local police said platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been helpful for the investigation. However, police say they are cautious when receiving online tips, because of rumours and speculation.

McKay explains that not only do police have to worry about sifting through “gossip,” but families also tend to “over use” social media when it comes to finding people.

“The idea behind an Amber Alert is that it means it’s a very important case and needs to be prioritized,” McKay said. “Social media does not prioritize as everything is important.”

McKay said this creates a risk, as those who need help most, may get minimized.

Sticking to facts

Despite the drawbacks, organizations like the Canadian Centre for Child Protection believe if it’s used properly, social media can be a huge help, as many missing people have been found this way.

Dzikowicz said it can be challenging, but the key it to stick to the facts.

“It’s an easy way to reach out and it encourages people to stay involved,” Dzikowicz said. “And in the case of Cooper, the search has to continue until he is found.”

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