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When Provo girl went missing, social media mobilized an army

Published: Tuesday, April 16 2013 7:48 p.m. MDT

PROVO — When a missing Provo teen was found safe in Pleasant Grove Tuesday it revealed a case social media observers said was more notable for its viral impact than its outcome.

The brief disappearance and subsequent reappearance of 14-year-old Charice Beaumont became a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram cause that mobilized as many as a thousand volunteers in less than 24 hours after the girl left home, according to organizers.

“When you see pictures of her personality – not just a school photo but you see a little bit of her personality – you tend to gain an emotional attachment to her,” said Alex Mitchell, a Beaumont neighbor who coordinated searchers. “Anybody that has families or nephews or nieces or any of that type of stuff – you know, it tugs at your heart strings.”

The case also reveals the power of social media and raises questions about the flow of information — both accurate and inaccurate.

When Susan Petersen learned from her LDS stake president that the girl, her teenage neighbor, was missing, she said she felt compelled to post the girl’s photo on Twitter and Facebook with a plea for information.

“It just made me so sick,” said Peterson, who has two young children of her own. “It’s just every mother’s nightmare.”

Just a few hours later, word of Beaumont’s disappearance was receiving wall-to-wall social media coverage on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. More than 2,000 people shared the photo on Facebook. Peterson, a well-known blogger who runs a leather goods business out of her home, said several of her friends with more than 100,000 Twitter followers also re-tweeted the photo.  

The Daily Mail in London even got in on the reporting, including Tuesday morning when Beaumont was found after calling home from Pleasant Grove. Petersen says she was stunned by the outpouring of concern.

“I thought a few of my followers would re-post, but I was shocked at how quickly it spread,” she said. “But I should have known – so many of my followers are moms.”

The powerful response raises implications about missing person cases in the golden age of social media. Public awareness is sometimes whipped up quickly, and police and news organizations are left to assess their traditional roles: is this a child who is acting out and simply run away from home or is the child a victim of something more sinister? 

“I think media has a responsibility to tell the facts, to help dissipate rumor,” said Natalie Wardel, social media director for KSL TV and KSL Newsradio.  “A huge role of ours is to look at what's being talked about and to say this is what people are saying, but this is the truth.”

The information Petersen posted was accurate, but as the news grew more viral additional photos cropped up falsely claiming that an Amber Alert had been issued. True Amber Alerts are used sparingly and only when there is established risk.

“In regards to getting information out, it was amazing,” said Lt. Matthew Siufanua of the Provo Police Dept. “When I put my post (online) last night, within minutes we had almost 8,000 looks on our Facebook.”

Wardel said there were more than 12,000  “shares” on the KSL 5 TV Facebook page, making the Beaumont post the most shared ever on the page.

Siufanua warned that utilizing social media could be a double-edged sword if it leads a police investigation to waste its time on deadends.

“In regard to a situation like this, I don’t’ see any problems with it as long as bad information doesn’t get out, Siufanua said. “The only problem I have is if bad information gets out, it’s spread out to thousands of people very quickly and it’s really hard to pull anything back, so you have to be very careful.”

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