In case you don't know, an Amber Alert is a message sent out to local TV stations, radio stations, traffic signs, and any other place they can get the message out, whenever a child has been kidnapped or gone missing. The idea is that the sooner you get the message out and the more eyes you have looking for someone, the more likely the child is to be found really quickly and safe. Amber Alerts are issued by the local affiliates of the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children, who maintains a database of missing children.
Amber alerts have been around for 25 years. The name "Amber" is taken from the name of a girl who went missing in Texas and was later found murdered. There are variations on the name, such as "Levi's alert"in Georgia, but the concept it the same, alert as many people as possible to help find a missing child as quickly as possible. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amber_alert)
It's a fantastic idea, especially sending the message to traffic signs on busy freeways where there are thousands of pairs of eyes and 99 times out of 100 if a child has been kidnapped, the kidnapper is probably getting away in a car.
As more and more people are becoming web-connected, it only makes sense that people want to share Amber Alerts through the internet as well. (It is possible to sign up for text messages or subscribe to an RSS feed to receive alerts on your mobile device, but neither option is well known and one must take the time to sign up, it doesn't go to everyone.) Somewhere down the line, someone decided to post one, or several, as Facebook status updates, asking people to forward it and many groups, such as the game my friend plays, have made Amber Alerts part of their culture.
Forwarding Amber Alerts, or missing children messages, from a home computer is not a new idea. Email services have been passing them around almost since email was invented. And while those who forward these messages, whether by email, Facebook, Twitter, or another social network, probably have the best of intentions, many times the messages are weeks, months or even years old, and yet are still in circulation, even though the child in question is no longer missing.
Or worse. Take, for example the case of Penny Brown. Sometime in 2001, an email began circulating that read something like this:
PLEASE LOOK AT PICTURE THEN FORWARD___________________
I am asking you all, begging you to please, forward this email on to anyone and everyone you know, PLEASE. My
9 yearold girl, Penny Brown, is missing. She has been missing for now two weeks. It is still not too late, Please help us.
If anyone anywhere knows anything, sees anything, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am including a picture of her. All prayers are appreciated!!
It only takes 2 seconds to forward this on, if it was your child, you would want all the help you could get.
Please. thank you for your kindness, hopefully you can help us.
This email is STILL circulating, even though Penny Brown would be at least 18 and the picture wouldn't look anything like her. But Penny is not missing. Penny was NEVER missing. And while the picture is of someone's little girl, Penny Brown may not even exist. Authorities in the United States and Canada testify that there has never been anyone by the name of Penny Brown listed as missing or kidnapped. The whole thing seems to be the product of someone's deranged imagination. (http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/missing/penny.asp)
So that Amber Alert that someone is asking your to forward or re-post might be outdated at best or a fake at worst. But there's a more important question, do Amber Alerts sent to people on their home computers fulfill their purpose and intent: to put as many eyes as possible to work looking for a missing child? And is forwarding an alert, via email or a social network, really the best way to distribute the information?
Let's look at each question separately.
Amber Alerts on the Desktop
Setting aside the issue of how you might receive an Amber Alert on a desktop computer (there are many ways besides email or social networking including official apps from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children), lets look at whether they fulfill their purpose and if they are at least potentially effective.
Picture this situation. You're sitting at home, at your desk or maybe on your bed with your laptop, and you get an Amber Alert. Unless there's a potential for the child to be in your house, it's not going to do you much good. However, imagine the same situation, only you're on your computer at work and it's a few minutes before you leave for the day. You could write down the license number and be on the look out for it on your way home. In that case, the Amber Alert could do a lot of good.
So, generally speaking, sending Amber Alerts to computers might be a good thing. In that light, it makes sense to send them to non-mobile web users. Even though those at home can't really use the information, it has the potential to reach many people in the workplace or are otherwise "out and about". It is probably still far more effective to deliver the information in a way that people will have access to while driving, but delivering it to non-driving citizens may be effective as well. After all, the idea is to get as many pairs of eyeballs activated as quickly as possible.
Passing Amber Alerts Person to Person
Picture the same situations, only instead of receiving the Amber Alert from an official source, you get it in an email or from a Facebook status update. Again, a home user can't do much with it, but someone in the workplace or out and about might be able to put it to use. However, if it's not coming from an official authority, how do you know the information is accurate or timely?
Maybe it is current and the information can be used appropriately. But maybe the Amber Alert is a fake. What if it was actually authored by an angry girlfriend and the license plate number in the alert is that of her boyfriend? Now, hundreds of people, if not more, are looking for a car that has nothing to do with a kidnapping and may not be doing anything wrong at all. What happens when someone finds it and 10 policemen with guns drawn pull this innocent guy over? Maybe this is an extreme example, but without someone checking the validity of the information, it is certainly possible.
The point here is, unless the Amber Alert is coming directly from the source - the police or other authority - then how do you know it's real? And even if it is real, how can you be sure it's current?
There's another issue. A friend of yours in California sends you an Amber Alert, but you live in Nebraska. What are you going to do with the information? Yes, it's conceivably possible that someone from California might end up in Nebraska, but by the time that happens, the alert will be several days old. And the chances of this individual being in the town you are in, in Nebraska, are pretty slim. And now your are the only one in Nebraska that has this information (unless you forward it to a very large number of others), and you are only one pair of eyes covering the whole state. Does the Amber Alert fulfill it's purpose in this case? In a very small way, maybe, but so small as to not really make a difference.
So passing an Amber Alert from person to person has the potential for being, at the very least, old information, and at the very worst, fake information, but also might totally fail to reach the people most likely to help find the missing child. Forwarding the information from person to person is obviously not the best way to distribute an Amber Alert.
There are a couple of arguments that can be made, like "but if it is real, why take the chance? Forward it anyway" and "if it was a child you knew you would forward it" and "I'd rather not waste time checking to see if it's real, every second counts, I 'm forwarding it". We will discuss those later.
People forwarding these messages do have the right idea, at least those who are honestly trying to be helpful and not generating fake alerts. Social networks have the potential to be an extremely powerful tool in the search for missing children. The problem is, so far, we're doing it wrong.
Like many technologies, business and government are only very slowly coming to realize the potential of social networking as a real communications tool and not just a toy. Facebook, for example, has been looked upon as a way to spread advertising, but not as a channel to provide help and support. Many companies, such as Dell, have started providing tech and sales support through Twitter; a great step, but there is so much more that can be done.
Let's look at Facebook, since it is arguably the most popular social networking tool on the Internet (at least in English speaking countries). In it's database, Facebook has information about where people live. An application could be built that could send targeted messages to people living in a certain city or county. This would be a perfect tool for Amber Alerts as it would send timely, targeted information to the people that could use it and not randomly out to people that couldn't. As more and more mobile devices become web-enabled, this becomes even more powerful as it reaches people in places where it can be the most effective, their cars, coffee shops, and shopping centers.
When my friend was chided for not forwarding Amber Alerts, there were many arguments that were thrown at her such as "what if it was your child?" and "better safe than sorry" and "what's the harm?"
This article has already demonstrated a couple of the pitfalls of forwarding false or misleading information. In response to the arguments above I would ask: "what if it was your license plate that was being falsely distributed as a kidnapper?" and "what if this is someone's idea of a sick joke?" and "what if someone is arrested who has nothing to do with the missing child?"
Or how about these: "but if it is real, why take the chance? Forward it anyway" and "if it was a child you knew you would forward it" and "I'd rather not waste time checking to see if it's real, every second counts, I 'm forwarding it."
My response is: "but what if it's fake and someone is just having a big laugh?", "if it was a child I knew I would be out helping to look, not wasting time on the Internet", and "if the child has already been found, there's no need to waste OTHER people's time."
The Real Deal
If you or someone you know is truly concerned about missing children, as I am, then the right thing to do is to get your information from the source and use it properly.
Each state maintains it's own Amber Alert program, but the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has access to their information and makes it available to the public at: http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PublicHomeServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US
While not every active Amber Alert may appear on this site, as it depends on information from local authorities, most will. You can also look up information on children who are still missing even though there is not an active Amber Alert.
Another good source of information is Code Amber (http://www.codeamber.com). This privately run, advertising and donation supported, site works in much the same way as the NCMEC site, aggregating all available information and making it available to the public. Their home page offers not only the most current Amber Alerts that have been issued, but also provides information on past Amber Alerts, such as why it was canceled and if the child was found, and sometimes, sadly, that the child was not found alive. The also provide widgets that you can use on your computer and place on your website, including your Facebook profile.
Many states also have their own website. You can find a list compiled by the NCMEC here: http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/ServiceServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=1421
Hopefully more states will begin to provide the information over the Internet, but those that don't have contact information listed, including phone numbers if you need to reach them.
In closing, let me just say that there is a right way and a wrong way to do Amber Alerts. Like gossip, it's not a good idea to pass the information from person to person. The wrong people get the wrong information and someone could get hurt.
If you receive an Amber Alert and you think it might be real, take a second to check it on one of the sites listed above. Yes, every second counts, but passing on the wrong information is worse than not forwarding it at all. Bookmark the NCMEC or Code Amber sites and quickly pull them up when you need to.
The best option, in my opinion, is to only trust Amber Alerts that come from the authorities. If you see it on the news or hear it on the radio, or get it from another trusted authority, then you know it's real and can act on it accordingly.
Amber Alerts are serious business, and should be treated as such. Take the time to verify the information and ACT on it. They don't work unless people are looking. If you care, then get out and look.