I’ll Ignore the Boys Crying Wolf and Err on the Side of Our Children

By Jason Menard

The immediacy and exponential reach of social networks can be a valuable tool when it comes to child abductions. However, false reports, whether posted out of benign ignorance or malicious intent, may put a virtual twist on the Boy Who Cried Wolf story – potentially with tragic results.

Many of us were caught in that web last night when the report of an abducted child began circulating on Facebook and Twitter. St. Thomas, ON police now say the reports were false and, in an interview posted on AM 980’s Web site, Constable Cam Constable decided to chastise social media users for their efforts.

“Unless everyone has the facts or there has been a news release from St. Thomas City Police or any police force for that matter people just need to be cautious that they don’t jump to conclusions that something has occurred when in fact it has not,” he said. “Everybody certainly panics when a child is missing but unless you have all the facts it’s easy to jump to conclusions.”

I was one of those who, in Constable Constable’s eyes, “jumped to conclusions.” But my path to sharing this misinformation was not one that I rushed into blindly. It was calculates, it was careful – and I’d do it again.

I received a Tweet asking to share this information from a source I trusted. I did search to see if I could find corroborating evidence on-line and there was no confirmation on police Web sites. I waited for an hour, hoping for confirmation (actually, hoping for a resolution would be more appropriate; I was looking for confirmation). Nothing.

So I thought about my own 10-year-old daughter. And I retweeted the post.

It all came down to this: if this were my daughter, would I want people to share this note? Absolutely. Would I want it spread as far and as wide as possible, as quickly as possible? Without a doubt. And would I want people to wait for an “official police statement?”

No way in hell, because when it comes to child abductions, every second counts.

When it comes to the Internet, I firmly believe in looking – and looking again – before one leaps. I’ll vet any alleged video or story that comes across my screen – and, in the case of false information, I’ll share that with the person who posted it. But when it comes to kids, I won’t apologise for jumping into the fray with both feet if it means that a child can be helped.

Just as much as Constable Constable is chastising us for sharing false information, perhaps the St. Thomas Police should take a look in the mirror. This information was out there for public dissemination. It was obvious that the community was concerned and it wasn’t as if we were passing this information to one another in shady, smoke-filled back rooms. It was out in the open, on the Internet for all to see.

How hard would it have been for the St. Thomas Police to send out a Tweet saying, “Despite messages being shared on-line, reports of an abduction of [child’s name] are false. Please share this message with your communities.”?

Actually, it would be pretty darn hard as the St. Thomas Police don’t have a Twitter feed. And the media release was not updated until today – well after the messages were shared. Knowing this erroneous information was being shared, they could have posted a correct on their site. I searched for the girl’s name (I’ve consciously withheld it from this post) and nothing came up.

Police ask us to play active roles in our communities. They ask us to share information; when there is an amber alert, we can’t spread that word fast enough. We do it because we care, but how many will now take Constable Constable’s seemingly supercilious chastising of the social networking community to heart? What happens next?

What Constable Constable is missing is that the real danger here isn’t people will keep sharing false information; it’s that they’ll stop sharing real information. In some cases, we can’t tell the difference. It’s not like you can visit snopes.com to check out the validity of the latest Amber Alert (although you can register to receive them via SMS here); and if police choose not to provide updates on-line or through their own (sometimes non-existent) social networks, then they’re doing the community a disservice.

On that Wireless Amber Alert site it says, “The early stage of an investigation is critical. Information obtained quickly through an Amber Alert can assist in the safe return of an abducted child.” If it was my daughter, would I be angry at a community for spreading false information in an attempt to ensure her safety?

Hell no!

I’ve always told my daughter that if ever I was walking behind a woman on the street and she ducked into a store or even called the police on me, I would not be upset. I think any right-thinking male would feel the same way. It’s better to be safe than sorry and if, for whatever reason, a woman feels uncomfortable with a situation, I’d rather she takes action to ensure her safety and not worry about offending or insulting me.

The same goes here. If people are sharing my daughter’s image and story because, for whatever reason, they feel she’s been abducted, then I will personally thank them. I can deal with explaining the truth or correcting a falsehood; I can’t deal with losing my daughter.

The scumbags who spread false alerts for fun? They should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law – and then some; same goes for those who use this as a tool in a domestic dispute. Some things are off limits. And every false report only threatens to undermine those real situations.

In the end, all I can suggest is that you check, double-check, and re-check any notifications you receive on-line. But in the absence of officially reported facts (for which Constable Constable would have you wait), you have to go with your gut.

I’m not going to apologise for sharing a false child abduction notification, because I know I would never be able to repay a family who lost their child because I stood by and chose not to share a real alert.

Sorry Constable Constable. I’m going to continue to ignore those boys crying wolf, especially if it means erring on the side of our children’s safety.

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