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Rumors complicate crash investigation
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The recent tragedy in which five teenage girls were struck by an errant pickup truck driver in Ceres highlights the evolving role that social networking - both good and bad - has on major emergency situations and subsequent criminal investigations. With one girl killed, two seriously injured and the other two also suffering lesser injuries, the magnitude of this event will go down as one of the worst in the history of Ceres. Many people in this community are still in a state of shock, while immediate family members and close friends of those involved try to cope with the hurt and sorrow they now face. It is no wonder that thousands of text messages were sent and circulated, social network posts were made, and comments appeared on online media reports in the days following this horrible collision. Many people wrote of the event out of sheer horror and emotional pain, while others were motivated by pure curiosity.

The primary problem the police experienced as they conducted their investigation was the frequent generation of rumors about how the collision occurred and the status of the four surviving victims. There were any number of occasions where I received panicked phone calls from parents and school personnel who had heard that a second girl had died from her injuries. Yet others were circulating stories about what the girls were doing prior to the collision, and any number of other versions of the story that ostensibly were to explain why the girls were struck. And most of the false reports had their origin in the social network milieu, with their authors pretending to have first-hand knowledge of the events. In the end, the police investigators were able to eliminate the "false leads" and conclude their investigation with focus and accuracy, but the many distractions generated throughout the eight days following the collision made the investigation take longer, consuming precious time and personnel resources.

At the time of the collision, these were simply five girls crossing the street in legal fashion, that were mowed down without any hope of escape or forewarning. The image of the aftermath haunts me to this day; cell phones lying in the street, crumpled little bodies, blood on the asphalt, weeping victims, shocked bystanders sobbing - some hysterical, and a population of people wondering how such a bad thing could happen to these children.

The social networking dynamic is here to stay and it will probably become more prolific as technology advances and more people start using it. Aside from the beneficial social aspects that most people derive from this kind of networking, it is already making its mark in the business world for rapid and targeted advertising. In day-to-day life, people use social networking postings to report traffic delays and other hazards and it is widely used to convey information about such events as what happened in Ceres two weeks ago. In Egypt and other countries experiencing social and political upheaval, social networking systems are being used to organize and coordinate demonstrations and protests. At this time, we are seeing just the beginnings of what social networking programs can do. Indeed, societies and governments around the world will feel the effects of social networking.

Social networking is a new tool; it amounts to a form of power of sorts, which is possessed at the individual level and for collective groups. And with power, comes responsibility. When these networking systems are used in connection with serious matters, crimes and other events involving human suffering, the loss of life and other tragedies, everyone needs to take care to transmit information that is accurate. Be sure to differentiate facts from opinions and hearsay, as the careless repetition or generation of rumors can destroy peoples' reputations, impede criminal investigations and cause needless suffering.

I realize that what I am urging may reflect a certain naiveté on my part, and just as there will always be criminals, there will also always be those who are careless and willful in their efforts to harm others. My appeal is to the people who wish to do no harm, but may be doing so unwittingly, and like me, as a result of being naive.