Tamara Yesmin Toma

Research Officer, Dismislab

Abrar Ifaz

Research Officer, Dismislab
How Missing Children Claims Evolved on Social Media

How Missing Children Claims Evolved on Social Media

Tamara Yesmin Toma

Research Officer, Dismislab

Abrar Ifaz

Research Officer, Dismislab

Posts circulating on Facebook throughout the week have claimed a significant rise in the number of missing children and teenagers. What began as a claim of 10 children missing within 24 hours, quickly escalated claiming 35 children missing in 48 hours. Initially, the children were reported missing from Chattogram, but subsequent posts included names from Dhaka and Cumilla. On July 7, some other posts circulated claimed that over two hundred children and teenagers had gone missing across the country in just two days. Many of these claims were accompanied by screenshots of posts requesting help finding missing children. Meanwhile, the police issued a press release calling these reports as rumors. Several media outlets also reported these claims to be fake. However, an investigation by Dismislab of such a viral post containing pictures of ‘missing’ children revealed that the search notices of missing persons were not fake. In fact, two families confirmed that the social media alerts had aided in the return of their children. 14 children have since returned home, though the parents of four children expressed distress as their kids were still missing. Amidst these reports, fears of child abduction have also gained traction. To address the situation and provide clarity, Dismislab consulted experts on strategies to manage and control such issues.

Dr. Gitiara Nasreen, Professor of the Mass Communication and Journalism Department of University of Dhaka stated, “The only way to prevent the spread of misinformation or panic is to provide correct information, not suppressing them. Since not all means of communication can be controlled, or nor should they, accurate information should be given rather than denial.” Dr. Sumon Rahman, the founding editor of fact-checking organization Fact-Watch said, “In abroad missing persons databases are open to the public. Our police station may also have databases. If such a database is open, people will trust the database more. Then, even if there is a rumor, they will go to the database and check whether it is true or not.”

From 10 to 200+

In the past few days, Facebook has been abuzz with various claims about the rising number of missing children. The number seems to increase daily, with numerous posts making similar claims. On July 3, a post with the caption “10 missing in 24 hours” claimed that 10 people had gone missing in Chittagong alone. This post credited a group called ‘Helpline Chittagong’ with screenshots seeking help in finding missing children. Several other groups based in Chattogram also shared similar posts (1, 2) on the same day.

The following day, on July 4, a user posted that Muslim adolescents were being specifically targeted. The post stated, “10 Muslim adolescents have gone missing in the last 24 hours. Terrorists are not letting our Muslim boys and girls be safe!” On July 5, another user posted in a Facebook group that a total of 11 persons, including 5 girls, had gone missing in Chattogram. Several additional posts (1, 2) echoing this claim appeared on the same day.

On July 6, another alarming claim began circulating on social media. One person wrote in a Facebook post, “In the last 72 hours, 50+ children from various areas of Chattogram, including Dhaka, have gone missing.” This post was shared over a thousand times. Similar posts appeared in the following days (1, 2, 3, 4). Additionally, on the same day, claims that “35 children missing in 48 hours” spread widely across social media (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Various media names were cited in these claims, including Prothom Alo, Kalbela, Ekattor TV, Nagorik TV, and Somoy TV. However, searches of the online versions of these media outlets and their social media pages revealed no news corroborating the claims. Although analytical reports from Somoy TV (1, 2,3) and Kalbela did address the issue of disappearances, there was no such information.

As the days passed, the number of reported missing children continued to rise. By July 7, various Facebook users were claiming that more than two hundred children had disappeared (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) in the last two days countrywide.

Are children really going missing?

While investigating the case of missing children, Dismislab found a post with screenshots of missing Facebook posts calling for help in locating 28 missing children, posted by a user named Kabbo Gazi. However, 5 of these posts were asking for the identity of the rescued child’s parents, one was about a missing Indian child, and another child’s phone number was not found. Of the remaining 21 cases, Dismislab was unable to contact three despite multiple attempts. The families of the 18 children that Dismislab managed to reach confirmed that the reports of their children’s disappearances and the missing notices published on Facebook were genuine. Fourteen of these children have since been recovered by their families, but four remain unaccounted for. The families of two returned children initially reported on July 7 that they had not yet found their children. Interestingly, upon contacting them again on July 8, they informed Dismislab that they had located their children late at night on the previous day.

The names of the children still missing are Mohammad Arafat, Sabbir Ahmed, Shamsul Islam, and Asadullah

Additionally, a report in Ajker Patrika indicates that 19 out of 25 missing have returned home, with 6 still missing. Furthermore, a Facebook group named “Khoj” an initiative by Rumor Scanner reported the return of 9 missing children till July 8th.

Missing within 72 hours, or earlier?

Various posts on Facebook have claimed that a significant number of children have gone missing within the last 24, 36, 48, or 72 hours. However, Dismislab’s investigation into the cases of 21 missing children revealed a different picture. Many of these children have been missing since May or June, as confirmed by their families. Additionally, a review of the viral screenshots showed that many of these posts were published on Facebook at least 72 hours ago. The Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) reported that in the first seven days of this month, 76 general diaries were made regarding missing persons. In June, this number was 260.

Just disappearing in Dhaka-Chattogram?

Initially, on July 3rd, posts claimed that children and teenagers from Chattogram were going missing. However, in the following days, the scope expanded to include children from both Dhaka and Chattogram. Subsequent posts added names from various areas, including Comilla and Brahmanbaria, while keeping the number of missing cases constant.

However, the 18 children Dismislab contacted were not only from Dhaka and Chattogram but also from Sylhet, Barguna, Tangail, Narsingdi, Narail, Shariatpur, and many other districts. 

What is the reaction to such information?

The parents of missing Fahim Ahmed Siam expressed gratitude towards the media, stating that a caller from Dhaka’s Rayer Bazar was able to identify and trace the boy after seeing his picture. Similarly, a parent from Chandpur’s Faridganj shared the same positive response. Similarly, a parent from Chandpur’s Faridganj shared the same positive response. However, some Facebook users voiced concerns that such incidents also fuel public fears of child abduction, a sentiment that has been observed multiple times in the past.

On July 7, pictures and videos (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) of a man in Golapganj, Sylhet circulated on social media, labeling him as a ‘child kidnapper.’ The posts claimed that the man was arrested while carrying an unconscious child in a sack and alleged that he was involved in kidnapping, eating children, and selling their body parts. However, a report by Dhaka Times identified the man as Abdul Majeed and reported him as mentally unstable. Local people had beaten him on the suspicion of child abduction. Several local media outlets in Sylhet confirmed this information.

Such incidents are reminiscent of 2019 when mass beatings occurred in various districts due to rumors that human heads were needed for the construction of the Padma Bridge. In one tragic incident, Taslima Begum Renu was beaten to death in Badda, Dhaka, on the suspicion of child abduction.

What to do if you see a ‘missing notice’ on social media?

According to Professor Dr. Gitiara Nasreen, people naturally feel anxious about children. As a result, when they see a post or hear something from someone, they consider it a duty to share it. She suggests the following considerations before sharing such notices: “The first responsibility of a responsible individual is to resist the urge to quickly share such posts. Taking a moment to verify the information can prevent unnecessary panic and misinformation spread. Secondly, Develop a habit of verifying the information. You can use search engines to look up details or check reliable sources to confirm the authenticity of the missing notice. Thirdly, apart from social media, utilize your personal communication network to gather accurate information. This could involve reaching out to local contacts or authorities to verify the claims made online.”

Experts also emphasize the impact of widespread discussions about missing children, which can instill fear of child abduction in the public. Dr. Sumon Rahman warns against the dangers of rumors leading to mass panic, citing past incidents where innocent individuals suffered due to misinformation. Therefore, it is crucial to exercise caution, verify information from multiple credible sources, including news media, before reacting or sharing such posts on social media. This approach helps in ensuring that accurate information is disseminated and unnecessary fear is minimized.

“Rumors of child abduction are created from mass panic and innocent lives have been lost due to the rumors in the past. Therefore, we should be cautious rather than panic. people should check multiple sources, including news media, to cross-check the accuracy of such posts,” Dr. Sumon Rahman said.

What are the media and law enforcement saying?

Various media outlets have reported the recent news about ‘missing’ children as rumors (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). One media source mentioned, “However, it has been confirmed that these are mere rumors. Some children were simply not at home for a few hours, while others had gone out to play with friends.” However, it is unclear how many families of the missing children were contacted before such reporting.

In a press release from the police headquarters, published across media channels, the police addressed the ‘missing children’ issue. The release stated clearly that these posts are unfounded rumors. The police urged the public not to be confused or alarmed by such misinformation.

Experts in ensuring the flow of information

Professor Dr. Gitiara Nasreen emphasizes the responsible dissemination of information in the public interest to prevent panic. She suggests that organizations can educate the public on precautions to take, how to assist others, and when to contact law enforcement if needed. She says “When any false information or rumor is spread, the concerned government institutions should have prior training on how to deal with it. The role of the media is also undeniable. Collecting and disseminating necessary or correct information is also the function of the media.”

Dr. Sumon Rahman highlights the psychological impact of labeling information as ‘rumors,’ noting that it can instill fear in people even if they refrain from spreading it. He advocates for law enforcement to provide transparent and reassuring information to alleviate panic. He also said, “Some people may take advantage, but ultimately such Facebook posts (missing posts) benefit people. It doesn’t really hurt anyone’s image either. I don’t think the image of the police is tarnished when someone goes missing. But if you call it all rumors, the flow of related information may also stop. Thus, the benefits of social media in connecting people, or the way in which lost people could be found by seeing shared posts, will also stop.”