WASHINGTON (AFP) - When the police department in Washington decided to use social media to spread the word about teens gone missing in the city, they never imagined the move would spark a wild rumor, fanned by racial tensions.
Officers posted a string of missing person notices on Twitter around the second week of March, many of them involving teenagers. The young women pictured were predominantly black and between the ages of 13 and 15.
Authorities in the US capital said they wanted to harness the power of social media "to generate immediate public attention for missing young people".
It appeared they achieved their goal, and some. The posts went viral, aggregated by users and shared online hundreds of thousands of times.
However, sign of the heated interest in the topic, many posts strayed into falsehoods about kidnappings and human trafficking, along with accusations of media purposely ignoring the issue.
Emotions peaked with an Instagram post that stated, erroneously, that "14 girls have gone missing in DC in the last 24 hours", referring to Washington by the abbreviation for its formal name, District of Columbia.
Since then social networks have been lit up with false rumors, under hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls, #missingDCgirls and #Findourgirls.
"Sex trafficking/slavery is pervasive in the US and world. Don't label our #missingDCgirls as runaways and not search," Bernice King, the daughter of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, said in a tweet.
Several players from the NBA's Washington Wizards shared the false information on their social media accounts, contributing to its spread.
Chris Paul, a star for the Los Angeles Clippers, posted a message on Twitter urging his six million followers to "stay vigilant and keep our kids safe."
The false news found root in fertile soil - many black Americans feel news pertaining to them doesn't receive the same media coverage as events affecting white Americans, especially when police are involved.
The Washington police department found itself caught in a tornado of publicity, and was peppered with questions at a contentious public meeting in a predominantly black neighborhood last week.
Although the federal government is frequently in the news, Washington's black neighbourhoods don't typically get much prominent coverage. The city is predominantly black (48 percent), followed by whites (36 per cent) and Hispanics (10 per cent).
A group of black lawmakers in Congress has asked the FBI to get involved in the search for the missing girls. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is aware of the request, his spokeswoman said.
Facing accusations of a cover-up or not taking enough action, authorities in Washington held a press conference on Friday.
"The number of reported missing persons is not going up," said Commander Chanel Dickerson, the head of the police department's investigative services bureau, youth and family services division.
In fact, statistics show the number of missing minors in Washington staying relatively stable, between 2,200 and 2,400 each year. Kidnappings are rare, and the majority are runaways.
Approximately 95 percent of the cases are closed, with the missing person either found or returning home on their own.
So far this year, of the 523 cases of missing youths investigated, only 13 remain open.
Nevertheless, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced new steps to finding missing youths in Washington, including assigning more officers to the unit tasked with finding them and grants for organisations that work with runaway youth and their families.
"We have no evidence to suggest that these reports are linked to human trafficking," she said.
Regardless of the manner the topic was thrust under the spotlight, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children has welcomed the new attention on the issue of missing youths.
Mayor Bowser vowed a stronger effort to address the needs of troubled youth.
"We want them to reach out for resources before they're thinking about leaving home," she said. "We want them to know that there's help."