Update: The two teenage girls have now been found.
Update 2: Corrected a mistake: Paisley Ray’s spreadsheet separated the men into their own tab, I missed that. Ray has created a Storify page of her tweets.
I use an app on my phone to subscribe to the Toronto Police Service’s news release updates. It’s an interesting barometer of what’s happening in the city, and perhaps a good way to catch a story or two- but most of the time it’s a lot of white noise.
There’s rarely a day when I don’t see missing persons alerts; for people of all genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The alerts are almost invariably followed by an announcement that the person has been found. I see so many of these messages each week that I often tell myself I should find an app that can filter them out.
The alerts turned into a minor, and questionable, controversy on Tuesday. Three women were reported missing near Queen St West and Osslington, two were teenage friends who were known to have been together; the third case was unrelated, a 40 year old Asian women. The story quickly caught the attention of the slacktivist class- outspoken radical New Brunswick feminist Kathleen Pye announced the hashtag #TorontoWomen. Everything started going downhill from that point.
Shortly after, Toronto activist Paisley Rae dug into the list of missing people (weeded out the men onto another tab) and profiled the a list of missing women. As the Twitterverse chattered, the list grew to include six women. Rae was then contacted by the Toronto Star who asked for comment on her list- slacktivist slam dunk!
[Note: Paisley is one of the alleged victims in the controversial Gregory Allen Elliott Twitter harassment trial.]
The police’s response was that it’s not abnormal to have six concurrently missing people; they also made the important point that they didn’t suspect foul play in any of these cases. But the slacktivists slipped into top gear- some implying how tragic it was that the media is ‘ignoring’ this urgent issue.
One genius took things even further, implying we could be watching the next Pickton murders- wolf, wolf, wolf!
Toronto Police were reportedly flooded with calls from people who were concerned there could be a “mass abduction” taking place. Many began rapid-fire tweeting the names and pictures of the missing women, alerting as many people as possible about the dire circumstances du jour. Eventually the story ended up in the media- the slacktivists created the perfect storm.
Less than 24 hours after the storm it was announced that the 40 year old Asian woman had been located. Unfortunately, it was way too late for her Internet reputation. She has a bit of a unique name, years from now people will still be reading that she went missing. This is a great argument for the EU’s concept of search engine expiry dates, but even this wouldn’t erase the exposure- her name is now forever recorded in the archives of the mainstream media.
The situation reminds me of a story I wrote last year about the Native Women’s Association’s online list of missing women. The NWAC got a $10 million grant from Status of Women Canada to compile a list and hold ‘awareness’ events. They were really good at holding awareness activities, but the list turned into a minor scandal. Eventually, they refused to release all of the names to the RCMP.
I realized after only a couple hours of research that their list had some serious problems. Their webpage showing with alerts on missing indigenous women, was mostly inaccurate. One person on the list (like the incident here in Toronto) had been located within 24 hours of when she went missing.
When I wrote to her mother to confirm her daughter had been found, she explained to me how she’d been trying to get the NWAC to take down her name for years- her daughter was married and had a stable family. After several calls to the NWAC I escalated the issue to Rona Ambrose’s office at Status of Women Canada- they took it down after a few days.
The similarity between these two stories is that they’re both symptomatic of the activist community’s tendency to focus more on drum beating and self-promotion than the consequences of their actions. There’s a fine line between advocacy and exploitation; one of the best measures is the end-result on the person being advocated for. The results were less than desirable for two women who got home safely.
If I was a slacktivist I’d probably be suggesting a new hashtag right now- how about #ThinkB4UAdvocate?