Police are trying an unnerving new way to solve missing-children cases on Twitter

A bit creepy, but will it be effective?
A bit creepy, but will it be effective?
Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel
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In the 1980s, Americans would pour milk for their cereal out of cartons that featured the faces of missing children, part of a broad campaign to promote awareness of “child snatching.” One of those faces was Marjorie “Christy” Luna, an 8-year-old Florida girl who went missing in 1984, after she left her home to get food for her cats.

Milk cartons and other product packaging featuring the faces of missing children fell out of favor after two pediatricians feared the images scared children too much. Three decades later, police are experimenting with a modern version of a milk carton—Twitter—in a campaign to solve the mystery of what happened to Christy Luna.

On May 26, around the 33rd anniversary of her disappearance, the voice of the little girl started haunting the Twitter account of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. The tweets, written from her point of view, detail the hours that led up to the moment she was last seen alive, and imagine her cries for help and her thoughts in the aftermath. The result is a somewhat creepy and unquestionably chilling portrayal of a true-crime story — a genre that has recently seen a revival and a redemption.

According to the Palm Beach Post, the idea came from Anthony Rodriguez, the social-media manager at the sheriff’s office, who was inspired by a similar campaign in Canada in October that had led to new leads and tips. The Post also reported that the main suspect in Luna’s case died in 2012.

During a press conference Thursday (June 1), Rodriguez said Luna’s mother, Jennie Johnson, helped with creating Luna’s voice, and that the campaign’s aim was to “stir up emotions” in order to get the message out. The agency is planning to use similar social-media initiatives for cold cases in the future.

The detective who has been working the case on-and-off since 1984 said he had received “new information” about a possible abduction, involving someone who resembled one of the former “persons of interest” in the case.

But David Finkelhor, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who specializes in crimes against children, is skeptical of the initiative.

“I certainly think experimenting with social media resources to solve crimes is a very good strategy in general.” But, he says, “there’s a certain amount of cry-wolf phenomenon about this.” If it’s overdone, people can easily start tuning out the influx of information.

That’s been a concern, he says, with Amber Alerts, an emergency response system that notifies the public about abductions via tv, radio, email and text messages. The aim is to make sure that alerts are issued only for “really clear cases where people might be able to help,” and to avoid information fatigue. Amber Alerts are effective because they are sparingly used.

He added that, for a Twitter campaign, perhaps it would have been more useful to start with a case that wasn’t as old, for instance. But, more importantly, publicizing so-called “stranger-danger” cases can be counterproductive.

“You don’t want this to reinforce the stereotype of the nature of crimes against children… When you’re putting so much information out there, you need to convey diverse cases.” Many children, for instance, are killed by family members, he points out.

Here is the saga of Christy Luna, as “she” describes it on Twitter: