Kara Alongi: Missing teen an example of Twitter use or abuse?

Kara Alongi Tweeted about a home intruder before she disappeared, sparked a massive campaign to find her, and got police involved sooner than they would have been. Now there are questions about whether she abused Twitter.

AP Photo/Union County, N.J. Prosecutor's Officer
Kara Alongi, the missing teen who used Twitter to say there were intruders in her home, was seen in surveillance video buying a ticket at the Rahway N.J., train station on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, after her tweet. The image provided by the Union County, N.J., Prosecutor's Office.

Kara Alongi, the New Jersey teenager whose Tweet about a home intruder sparked a massive Twitter campaign to #helpfindkara was probably not kidnapped, police say. Rather, they say the evidence points toward the 16-year-old being an apparent runaway.

Police are still trying to track down the teen. News reports today say Alongi purchased a train ticket to New York City on the same day that she tweeted that someone was in her house. But the hot topic for a lot of those who have followed the Kara drama is something more general: the way social media has transformed not only this case, but law enforcement in general – and missing children cases in particular. 

Twitter, with its massive number of users, has proved a boon to a number of advocacy campaigns. It has mobilized movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring; it has assisted law enforcement in finding missing children through Amber Alerts and helped reunite at least one woman with her dog.

But with almost completely unregulated content, Twitter is ripe for hoaxes, too.  (Some small, some big, like the rumor that went around in a couple of years ago that scientists at the California Institute of Technology were predicting a massive earthquake. Concerned citizens swamped local police and emergency services with phone calls.)

In the Kara Alongi case, law enforcement officials have said that the huge Twitter following – and commentary – has sent police down numerous dead ends. They have wasted time and manpower on Tweets; something that would sound almost ridiculous only a few years ago.

Clark Police Chief Alan Scherb told local media that if it were not for the Twitter reaction, his department would have treated the case like any other missing juvenile situation.

And with the US Department of Justice reporting nearly 800,000 children missing each year – an average of 2,185 a day –  it’s not hard to see how Twitter could both help and gum up investigations.

Clark police say they're working with New Jersey Transit to review video from train stations as part of the effort to return the girl home.

An image that police released shows Alongi at the Rahway train station on Sunday. She's seen wearing a purple T-shirt and jeans and is carrying a blue backpack.

Authorities are urging anyone to contact Union County Crime Stoppers if they know the girl's whereabouts.

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