Editorial: Social media and missing persons

A screenshot of the Facebook page called Ashley Come Home.

Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” in 1962 to describe how our world was being transformed by electronic technology and its ability to carry information anywhere in an instant. Could he have envisioned back then how accurate his assessment would prove to be five decades later?

Did he imagine the rise of the Internet and the more recent phenomenon of social networking? The evolution of the specific systems is less noteworthy than his accurate description of the direction we were headed.

For proof, look no further than this week’s search for a 16-year-old Peconic girl who went missing after she left home Monday morning but never made it to school. The case is following two non-parallel tracks: the police investigation and the sharing of information and comments on social media. With the exception of issuing a missing persons report, investigators are conducting their search in relative quiet. That’s standard police procedure — and it works. But in the age of Facebook, there’s a not entirely separate approach that deputizes virtually anyone with a computer, tablet or smart phone.

Will that help the investigation? It’s too early to tell. Will it hinder the search? We certainly hope not, but this is uncharted territory, on the North Fork at least, and there are no real local precedents to refer to.

Given all the fear and anxiety surrounding the disappearance, it comes as no surprise that many online commenters are taking what appear to be unjustified pot shots at the police. But this is not “CSI” or a similar television show where each case is wrapped up in less than an hour. Police work is often quite time-consuming and rarely provides immediate results. On Tuesday, Southold Town police took the unusual step of issuing a missing persons report with the type of poster — bearing the girl’s name and photo — usually associated with more suburban and urban settings. And that’s where social media can provide valuable assistance.

Did anyone see her, hear from her, receive a text from her? That’s the type of information needed to help find Ashley Murray and, we hope, return her safely home.

Keep Ashley in your thoughts and prayers with the hope that police and their digital deputies can bring the case to a happy conclusion.