Can Facebook members find missing man?

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missing man, man in cap walking toward haze

A man is missing in my town. He is elderly, in his 70s, and he has Parkinson’s. I’m not sure of the particulars, but apparently Steve became upset and confused. On February 12, he wandered away from the house where he lives with his son. It was unusually warm that week for a Maryland February. The temperature hovered in the 50s, but it dropped into the 20s at night.

The family immediately called the police and began to search for the missing man. On February 19, the family started a Facebook page to obtain the public’s help in the search. By February 22, the page had over 1,000 members. One week later, that number had doubled, and the family had lost control of their page.

I confess, I was among the thousands who followed this Facebook page, watching for new information about Steve. After a while, however, it was more like watching reality TV as the followers made it all about themselves. They seemed to be vying for the honor of being the one who would find him, whose tip would lead authorities to him or whose prayers would be most efficacious.

Prayers for the missing man

Many people wanted the family to know they were praying for them. This is nice and, in most cases, sincere. Some, however, printed their long prayers on the site, listing every intention they could relate to the case: that poor Steve be safe and warm, that he find his way home, that his dear wife receive peace of heart, that the family gets a good night’s sleep, and so on.

Others made sure to share just what good people they are:

  • I was serving dinner with my church at the homeless shelter Sunday evening. I did not see anyone resembling Steve that night.
  • I volunteer at the food pantry in town, and we are always on the lookout for him.
  • I pray that he finds his way to our home on South Main Street. I would welcome him, give him a hot meal, and call the authorities. That’s just the kind of person that I am.

These are direct quotes. Of course, I had to punctuate them. But wouldn’t it be nice if all missing people could find their way to houses where the kind people live?

It’s all about me

The average American spends almost three hours a day on social media. Social media has proven helpful in finding some missing persons. In some cases, however, it clogs up the investigation with false leads and useless information. Steve’s family found this out as thread after thread devolved into personal stories and time-wasting details:

  • I just wanted to tell you that I don’t know anything about Steve other than him being my mailman for 5 years.
  • My mother had dementia, too, and she would wander every night. My poor father and I never got any sleep.
  • I have a grandmother that has dementia, my grandfather passed away from it. Now my husband’s mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Some followers became obsessed. They needed to be involved so that when the missing man was found, they could say they played a part.

  • I’m always watching for Steve wherever I go. Showing his picture and telling everyone I know to be watching.
  • I have been sick, so I haven’t been able to join any search parties.
  • I wake every morning looking at this site first to see if he’s been found.
  • I left work early and drove up 77 and took nearly every back road around there. Ended up in Myersville.
  • I am looking for him every day. Someone walking on the side of the road or whatever. And I will follow anyone who looks like him.
  • I have been following this story ever since he went missing.

They offered their drones, their dogs, and their psychic abilities to bring home the missing man.

Regaining control

People on Facebook began to get angry when the family turned off comments for certain threads. Sometimes it happened when comments got negative or when conversations veered off topic. Sometimes they just wanted to reduce the sheer volume of posts they had to sort through each day to find a credible lead. The followers who had made this their personal whodunnit to solve became enraged, even throwing suspicion on the family:

  • Why do the comments keep getting shut off? We need people to talk to each other and try to figure this out! This is bs!
  • I spent 7 to 8 hours with the search party looking for your brother. I don’t appreciate being shut out.
  • Maybe if things were clarified, the actual story told, and questions answered when asked, maybe this wouldn’t happen.
  • I feel that someone close to this man has to know more than what is being told. It just doesn’t add up. It’s like he disappeared into the night.
  • Why isn’t the wife more involved?

The family finally began moderating posts and approving them before posting them. While I can’t imagine the time that must have taken, they posted that this single action greatly relieved their stress.

What next?

Three weeks into the search, things look grim for Steve. The Facebook page has not yielded a single clue about the missing man. Its daily fury has quieted down to a few random offers of prayers and reposting of the original flyer.

And here is where the search stands: We know that many people on Facebook are important and entitled in their own little worlds. We also know that social media may not be the best way to find someone who goes missing. And we know that Steve has not yet found his way to South Main Street for a hot meal.

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