Social Media a Double-Edged Sword in Search for Missing Barista
False reports cause family, friends emotional pain
ANCHORAGE - Nearly two weeks ago, James Koenig stood in the snowy parking lot outside of Common Grounds Espresso coffee stand and made a heartfelt public request.
“Just please, help me find my daughter,” he said, hands pushed deep into the pockets of his jeans, shoulders hunched beneath a black Pittsburgh Steelers jacket.
Anchorage police said surveillance video footage showed 18-year-old Samantha Koenig was taken from the coffee stand where she worked by an armed man wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt on the night of February 1, and left the stand on foot around 8 p.m. It’s the only information they’ve released to the public.
In the weeks since, the Anchorage community has heard her father’s plea, posting thousands of flyers around the municipality and sharing her story with thousands more via social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
But sometimes, those same sites act as a double-edged sword.
“People on the internet are slandering my daughter’s name, saying she’s a prostitute, a drug addict and all sorts of crap,” James Koenig said that day, surrounded by family and friends, his voice rising in frustration. “She is the furthest thing from that.”
As time passed, the dark side of social media took on a different form: rumors claiming Koenig’s body had found everywhere from Campbell Creek to Kincaid Park began circulating everywhere from wall posts to tweets.
“I heard they found her body at 3 a.m. near or in Jewel Lake, bound and gagged, clearly raped,” read one rumor making the rounds on Facebook.
Police said they’ve all been “patently false.”
“Once something like that starts, it’s almost impossible to extinguish it,” said Lieutenant Dave Parker, a spokesman for the Anchorage Police Department.
He said homicide detectives have been working around the clock to bring Koenig home, some putting in as many as 55 hours of overtime a week. It’s been a draining investigation, physically and emotionally, and Parker said misinformation spreading unfettered over the internet only “detracts from the whole investigative process.”
Aliza Sherman, author and digital consultant, said there’s a reason social media has become a breeding ground for rumors and misinformation in the two weeks since Koenig disappeared.
“It is very easy for any of us to see information and click the share or retweet button,” she said. “What that does is it takes away the thought process, and all of us need to be a lot more careful about what we read and what we pass along.”
While good news travels fast online, Sherman said bad news travels faster, which makes it doubly important to verify sources and confirm information comes from a trusted, official source before passing it on.
“Just because your friend sent it, doesn't mean it's from a credible source” Sherman said. “Go further.”
It’s a mindset James Koenig said he’s been trying to maintain since he made the first plea for his daughter’s return 11 days ago. He said he ignores the rumors and speculation, and waits for the phone call from Anchorage police signaling a break in the case.
"I don't have time to be sidetracked, it goes in one ear and out the other,” he said over the phone Wednesday. His voice sounded tired. “I can't put that in my head, I mean, I've got to stay positive, keep the hope going."
Despite the dark side of social media, he said there’s a bright side, too. Thousands of people both in and outside of Alaska have used it as a medium to share Koenig’s story, and her father said he continues to rely on the support of strangers relayed over the internet.
“The community’s been praying and their hope is powerful, and I've got to maintain that perspective,” he said. “I can't go into a deep, dark place, it's hard to pull back out of that."