It began with tweets from the Washington, D.C., police department in December: “CRITICAL MISSING” trumpeted an alert about a 13-year-old girl with a ponytail and pink slippers who was last seen outside her home. The siren echoed through cyberspace, retweeted 113 times, reposted by as many more on Instagram and Facebook. When the girl returned home hours later, that news was retweeted just 13 times, the Washington Post reports. A similar scenario began playing out daily, part of a new police initiative to tap the power of social media to locate missing children, a 21st-century version of the milk carton. The number of cases in D.C. was actually going down, but a police official thought publicity could help resolve cases faster. Police officials and Mayor Muriel Bowser were pleased. To a mayor who scrolls through Twitter at night, the attention seemed a good thing, especially because most of the youngsters were turning up safe – much as they always had — within a few hours or days.
Unbeknownst to Bowser and her team, the all-caps alerts, screaming out into cyberspace, was morphing into something else: a perceived epidemic of missing girls. NBA stars, rappers, Oscar winners and television personalities, each with millions of followers, began tweeting with the hashtag #missingdcgirls. “I want #missingdcgirls trending !!!!!” the rapper LL Cool J tweeted, a demand retweeted 8,700 times. The notion that young girls of color were disappearing without an uproar seemed scandalous, even racist. “Some of this viral media left people with the false impression that people were being abducted and that nobody cared and that was entirely wrong,” Bowser said. Last week, Bowser sought to calm the panic caused by a wayward social media campaign while recognizing the real desperation experienced by young people in poor neighborhoods. She vowed to keep publicizing each missing child on social media, saying the exposure is a net positive and that equity demands the disappearance of each child be treated the same.