It began with tweets from D.C. police in late December: “CRITICAL MISSING” trumpeted one alert about a 13-year-old girl with a ponytail and pink slippers who was last seen outside her home in Southeast Washington. 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.
A similar scenario soon 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 the District was actually going down, but a key police official thought publicity could help resolve the cases faster.
Inside D.C. police headquarters and the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), officials initially were pleased. To a mayor who scrolls through Twitter late at night, the attention seemed to be a good thing, especially because almost all of the youngsters were turning up safe – much as they always had — within a few hours or days.
But unbeknown to Bowser and her team, the cacophony of all-caps alerts, screaming out into cyberspace, was morphing into something else entirely: a perceived epidemic of missing girls in the nation’s capital. 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 that was retweeted more than 8,700 times.
And in a divided city where marble monuments to power and luxury condos mask undercurrents of racial tension and economic despair, 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.
By late last month, the Congressional Black Caucus had asked for an FBI investigation. There was national television coverage. And fear and misinformation had filtered down to the neighborhood level, with Bowser and acting police chief Peter Newsham facing a community meeting of angry residents who accused them of neglecting missing girls of color. There were candlelight vigils, school walkouts, and crosses erected in churchyards bearing faces of the missing.
Suddenly, the mayor and her staff were plunged into crisis mode.
In her annual citywide address Thursday night, Bowser sought to calm the panic caused by a wayward social media campaign while recognizing the real desperation experienced by hundreds of young people in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families whose loved ones are not at home tonight,” Bowser said, highlighting plans to create a task force largely devoted to helping runaway children. Bowser also 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.
“I think it’s a big deal that we have young children who their parents or responsible guardian don’t know where they are,” Bowser said in a later interview. “And if we can use different techniques to get them home sooner, we will.”
Separating fact from fiction about missing kids has become a daunting task for Bowser and the police department.
And sometimes, they inadvertently work against their own goals.
Bowser last week continued to tweet using the hashtag #missingdcgirls — a term widely associated with a false Instagram claim that 14 girls disappeared in the District in a 24-hour period.
D.C. police have not effectively used their digital tools to call attention to the fact that 99 percent of missing-persons cases in the city get solved. Hundreds of their tweets announcing the disappearances continue to circulate on the Internet, like a CD on replay. The department doesn’t delete the tweets once a child is located or link to subsequent tweets it posts once a case is closed.
The number of juveniles reported missing in the District has been trending downward.
Statistics show that fewer than 190 juveniles have disappeared each month this year, about equal with the number at the same point a year earlier, and down from about 200 a month in 2015.
So far this year, D.C. police logged 869 reports of missing people, 566 of them juveniles. Officials could not say how many were cases of repeat runaways or automatic reports filed by schools when children leave campuses.
When it comes to the approximately 19,000 people reported missing in the District since 2012, 16 cases remain unsolved. Five of those involve young girls of color, including four who have reportedly disappeared since late December. The fifth is the highly publicized case of Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old who disappeared in 2014.
Compared with other cities, the District falls in the middle of the pack, both in the number of missing children each year and the percentage of those cases that involve children of color, said Robert G. Lowery Jr., the vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Nationwide, about 35 percent of missing children are black and an additional 20 percent are Latino.
The District’s situation is not cause for panic, but it shouldn’t be ignored, Lowery said. “What it did was spark a conversation about the risks children face, especially runaway children,” he said.
At D.C. police headquarters, the idea for the social media campaign began with a newly promoted police commander, Chanel Dickerson, a 26-year veteran of the force.
Late last year, Dickerson decided that the department should harness the power of social media and routinely tweet every “critical” missing person, a designation assigned to anyone 15 or younger and 65 or older.
Before the change, the decision to publicize a case rested with investigators and usually was reserved for instances when police had thought a missing individual might be in danger.
Without that filter, what happened next was a deluge of public tweets about missing people — most of them children, and most black and Hispanic.
“I don’t fault the effort to publicize, but you can fault the part that they didn’t tell anybody they were making this policy change and all of a sudden their social media feeds were dominated by missing people, and, specifically, young, missing girls of color,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chair of the public safety committee.
Bowser acknowledged in an interview that once the social media campaign began, the sheer volume of missing-persons cases surprised her.
“It first came onto my radar when the first tweet went out,” Bowser said. She asked Newsham about the first tweets and said she was immediately supportive of the idea.
“The experience had always been that these kids were located, but to the extent that we could hasten that and get them back into a safe situation, that’s what it was about,” she said.
Bowser and Newsham were stunned by what came next.
The Web traffic exploded, with taunts on social media soon aimed at both the police and news media: children were disappearing from the streets of the District, the police weren’t doing anything about it, the media wasn’t covering it.
On March 16, D.C. police and Bowser held a news conference to explain.
Dickerson noted that most of the “missing children” were not abducted — they left voluntarily because of dire situations they perceived at home or in their neighborhood.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the number of young people in our city who leave their homes because they feel there is no other alternative,” she said. “I want to let them know they are valuable assets to our community. We have not counted them out or written them off. We are here to help them.”
But while police were trying to reassure the public, social media, which has served as a propellant for fake news, veered toward conspiracy theories.
Believers of the disproved Internet rumor that a child sex-trafficking ring was being run out of a popular Northwest Washington pizzeria grabbed onto the missing-girls tweets as evidence of a plot.
“Police in DC won’t push to find #MissingDCGirls b/c they r involved!! Current DC police chief best friends w/ Comet Ping Pong owner#pedogate,” read one.
To combat the maelstrom, Bowser announced a six-point strategy on March 24, but that only seemed touch off a new round of intrigue — if there is a task force, there must be a problem.
Entertainer Roseanne Barr retweeted a low-budget video that night, now viewed more than 35,000 times, in which a narrator warns of sinister explanations behind the police tweets: “we know there is some sex trafficking s**t going on, most likely,” and possibly an epidemic of “organ harvesting.” The video advises fathers in the District to give their girls mace, in case someone jumps “out of a van trying to kidnap her.”
Newsham began getting daily updates about the growing online phenomenon. “It seemed like a snowball rolling down a hill,” he said.
The police chief and mayor drew flak from black community leaders when they tried to tamp down the firestorm by casting the issue as confusion about runaways.
To a swath of the city’s poor black population, the flood of attention to girls who leave home seemed like overdue validation of a real but rarely discussed problem.
“We just feel like, you know, if this was a white person or from another neighborhood, there would be more alarm about it,” Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) told CNN.
At a candlelight vigil Wednesday night outside the African American Civil War Museum on U Street, mothers took turns at a microphone sharing the frustration they felt when their kids disappeared from school or home and police were not always helpful.
April Thomas, 34, recounted how her 12-year-old daughter had run away from the family’s home in Southeast five times between November and March. “One time I asked her why, and she said her friends got to stay out until 12 or 1 a.m.,” Thomas said. “I told her, ‘Sometimes what looks like better isn’t always better.’ ”
The last disappearance was the most serious. Thomas said her daughter left school and was not found until days later, holed up in an abandoned apartment with other juveniles. While there had been urgency by officers before, Thomas said it wasn’t as clear that time.
“The police come and they say, ‘Oh, Ms. Thomas, has your daughter run away again?’ ”
Jamila Larson, executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, said she hopes police continue to push forward.
Runaways — even those who leave home multiple times — should be treated with urgency, Larson said.
She said children and teens who run away from home can quickly end up in danger. Some participate in what is known as “survival sex,” exchanging sex for places to stay or for food.
The problem is especially acute in low-income areas where resources are thin, stress is abundant and extended families can be crammed for years into one or two rooms. “Many teens are one serious argument away from feeling the streets are a better option,” Larson said.