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Abduction rumors in Oklahoma City area run wild on social media with little basis in fact

Rumors on social media recently caused strife for local residents.
Rumors on social media recently caused strife for local residents.

EDMOND — When it comes to social media, people often don't take the time to think about what they are typing, who will be reading it, where it will be shared or what the consequences might be.

Posts on neighborhood social media sites warning Edmond parents about "multiple recent abduction attempts" are a good example of how things can get out of hand.

People first wrote about an 8-year-old girl being approached by a man near NW 178 and Western Avenue in Oklahoma City. They gave detailed descriptions of the man and the sport utility vehicle he was driving.

The posts rapidly escalated to state that three girls had been abducted in Edmond. Adding to the virtual firestorm, the parent of an Edmond Heartland Middle School student went to the principal with information her homeowners association forwarded to her about the supposed abductions.

Heartland Principal Jason Galloway sent an email to parents stating there had been three child abductions in 36 hours, two of them near the school. He said he was passing along the information in hopes necessary precautions could be taken.

"Regrettably, the email caused confusion," said Susan Parks-Schlepp, Edmond school spokeswoman.

Galloway was unaware the information he received had been contradicted by Oklahoma City and Edmond police, Parks-Schlepp said.

He later sent a second email, telling parents there had been no confirmed abductions in Edmond.

Parents of students at West Field and Washington elementary schools also were notified about a girl being approached by a man in a dark-colored sport utility vehicle.

"Information about the incident was shared on social media, but the facts got twisted and changed, leading many patrons to believe that there was a rash of attempted child abductions suddenly occurring in neighborhoods near our schools," Parks-Schlepp said.

Oklahoma City Police Master Sgt. Gary Knight called the events "a storm of conjecture on social media."

"You want something you put out to be fueled by facts, not fear," Knight said.

The social media posts, phone calls and emails got so out of control that Oklahoma City and Edmond police made the rare decision to release statements to people in northwest Oklahoma City and Edmond.

Police outlined the facts of two cases reported to Oklahoma City police over a three-week period.

A mother had reported that a man tried to get her daughter to get into his sport utility vehicle. The girl ran home and was neither abducted nor harmed.

The second report, made three weeks earlier, was of an indecent exposure near NW 177 and Pennsylvanian Avenue. Again, nobody was harmed or abducted, Knight said.

"These cases do not appear to be related, and there is no evidence whatsoever that these incidents are related to any other crimes in Oklahoma City or Edmond," Knight wrote.

"These social media postings have caused many to unduly experience a heightened level of fear and apprehension regarding the safety of their children."

"It was insane and out of control," said Jenny Wagnon, Edmond police spokeswoman. "We had to do something."

"Administrators and secretaries at several Edmond schools were inundated with phone calls and emails from worried parents who had read inaccurate information on social media," Parks-Schlepp said.

Even after police discredited the abduction stories, some people argued online with them about the facts.

If there had been abductions in the area, there would have Amber Alerts issued if the case met the criteria, Wagnon said.

"We would have gotten the information out to the masses in every way we could if there had been an abduction," she said.

Many days, Wagnon said, she spends much of her time checking out information someone has seen on social media.

"Seven out of 10 times nothing has been reported to police, but it has been posted on social media," Wagnon said.

"If you feel compelled enough to put it on social media, I hope you will feel compelled to call us and tell us. If you don't and we don't know about it, we can't take care of it."

Wagnon paused during the interview. Someone had seen information about a suspicious vehicle reported on a neighborhood website and was asking if the information was true.

"See what I was saying," she said. "That one is in my neighborhood."

Social media has benefits for law officers, because they are able to get out information quickly, which is important to investigators. But when misinformation spreads, it does more harm than good.

"If someone is going to forward a post that involves criminal activity, people should do a little fact-checking before sharing it," Knight said. "There is no vetting process and it becomes a runaway train."

"When posting to social media, especially about something as alarming as an attempted child abduction, it's helpful to pause, think and ask yourself the following: 'Do I trust the source?' " Parks-Schlepp said.

Joe Hight, the University of Central Oklahoma E.K. Gaylord chair of Journalism Ethics, refers to such social media postings as "a shred of truth."

Hight says people should first determine if the provider is creditable.

"As a reader you should be skeptical," Hight said. "Social media information goes rampant. You have to ask questions now."

Police want people with information about criminal activity to tell an officer or pick up the phone and make a call.

"This incident is a good lesson," Knight said. "Just because it appears on social media — don't assume it is true.

"You can post the sky is going to be purple all day. There is no filter."

Diana Baldwin

Diana Baldwin has been an Oklahoma journalist since 1976. She covered the Oklahoma City bombing and covered the downfall of Oklahoma City police forensic chemist Joyce Gilchrist misidentifying evidence. She wrote the original stories about the... Read more ›

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