Remember kids’ faces on milk cartons? Prior to 1996, missing child notices were synonymous with milk cartons and local morning news broadcasts. These low tech — or no tech — solutions paired limited reach and targeting with broad-based panic over the perceived prevalence of missing children.
Everything changed in 1996 when a nine-year-old girl named Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas. This specific child, this moment in time, led to the political lobbying and activism necessary to create what was first an opt-in text messaging service called AMBER Alerts. Due to the opt-in nature of the service, only 700,000 people signed up, severely limiting its reach.
In 2012, FEMA launched the Wireless Emergency Alert system. In conjunction with wireless carriers, this new system was used not only for AMBER Alerts, but also to alert people about natural disasters in their geographic area.
It wasn’t until 2014, however, that Facebook took notice of a specific AMBER Alert. In May of that year a woman dressed as a nurse entered the maternity ward of a hospital in Québec and abducted Victoria McMahon, a 19-hour-old baby. The Canadian authorities immediately issued an AMBER Alert and people shared it on social media. The parents also took to Facebook to post a plea to their friends and family: “Help us please, after one day, our daughter has been stolen.”
A community member in Québec recognized the suspect in the hospital surveillance video as a former high school acquaintance. She rallied a few friends and headed over to the apartment of the suspect. Upon confirming the vehicle matched the report, they called the police who recovered the missing child only hours after she went missing.
Facebook’s Trust and Safety Director, Emily Vacher, reflected about the event, writing “Something extraordinary was happening on Facebook and it caught our attention. People were using our platform to encourage their friends and families to help find missing children. They would share information and pictures with messages of hope, and the Facebook community responded to the call for help.”
That same year, Facebook began integrating AMBER Alerts into its Newsfeed. We started by using Facebook’s Newsfeed and location targeting. The first iteration of the alert displayed a simple message at the top of a person’s newsfeed that they would see if they were in the area where a child had gone missing. It showed an image of the child, their name, and some details about the abduction — a modern day milk carton, in real-time. People could click to learn more at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) website, or share the alert to their network on Facebook.