Last night, a New Jersey teen by the name of Kara Alongi sent both police and the Twitterverse scrambling after posting a worrisome tweet:
People on social media quickly mobilized, retweeting her message with the hashtag "#helpfindkara," which soon became a trending topic on Twitter. Hundreds began following the 16-year-old on her Twitter account, @KaraAlongi. According to International Business Times, several search parties were launched to look for Alongi.
But today, police have come out and said that they don't suspect foul play in her disappearance, although at time of writing, police are still looking for Alongi.
"She is currently still missing, but we are confident she left voluntarily," local police chief Alan Scherb told Patch. "No abduction, no foul play. We are now investigating this as a missing runaway juvenile."
There have also been reports that a cab driver has identified Alongi, and dropped her off at a local train station.
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The quick response of the Twitter community to Alongi's potential abduction is an example of what a double-edged sword social media can be. There have been plenty of recent events that highlight the good that Twitter can do: social media gave voices to thousands during the Arab Spring uprisings, helped find missing children through Amber Alerts, and even helped a woman in Ireland be reunited with her dog.
But Twitter's mass availability and nonexistent monitoring (barring only the most extreme content) has meant it has also been working against the efforts of law enforcement officials and spreading mass panic where none is needed.
While there have been successful Amber Alerts issued via Twitter, there have also been fake alerts, like the "72B 381" hoax which has been making its way through social media since February 2009. These fake alerts have led to suspicion in communities and confusion amongst search teams — not to mention abusing the goodwill and time of those who want to help when a child goes missing.
In the case of Kara Alongi, NJ.com reports that police efforts were actually hampered by the viral nature of the teen's disappearance, as it prevented them from focusing their efforts on real leads.
"It sent more manpower (down) these wrong-way streets," Scherb said in the NJ.com story. "It hampers us because we have to follow up on bogus leads."
Scherb also commented on how social media factored into the case: "I'm sure this will be a case study down the road."
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The story hasn't sat well with many Twitter users, who thought Alongi's case sounded suspicious from the start. A blog on Gather highlights the ways that Alongi was "sloppy" in her departure, assuming that the police are correct and her disappearance isn't a kidnapping.
For some, the hoaxed kidnapping might feel reminiscent of another story about a young person in danger that went viral while arising suspicion: in 2010, six-year-old Falcon Heene was thought to be inside a compartment attached to a weather balloon he and his family had been working on. The balloon got away, and news agencies across the country watched with baited breath as it made a 50-mile journey across Colorado over two hours. When it landed, Falcon was not inside, which led many to fear he had fallen out at some point during the journey.
It turned out, however, that Falcon had been hiding inside the attic during the entire incident. In a follow-up interview with the family later, Falcon was asked why he didn't come out when he heard his parents calling for him. His response to his father of "you had said that we did this for a show," did not, as you can imagine, sit well with his parents or the public at large.
While it doesn't appear that Alongi's disappearance will likely get the publicity and backlash that the Balloon Boy hoax received, it remains, unfortunately, one of the many stories where Twitter's presence isn't the helpful force we might wish it to be.