It is the year 1996, the little Tegan is born in the Australian Auburn Hospital. Two days later she disappears without a trace. Her mother, Keli Lane, is sentenced to murder years later – though neither a body nor any other evidence has been found and Lane denies the crime to this day. She gave the baby to his biological father, who had gone in with him.
Back then, when Tegan disappeared, Facebook did not exist yet. But now the platform should help to finally solve the case. Journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna has founded a Facebook group to collect, evaluate and discuss new leads. The echo was immense: The group grew within a few weeks to over 30,000 members.
“Should we just leave people with this riddle now?”
The starting signal was a three-part documentary by ABC about the Tegan case, in which Meldrum-Hanna rewrites the case – and notes that there are still many questions left: Where is Tegan – does she even live? And where is her father?
So far she has not been able to solve these questions in her research – even if she found new clues that in her opinion more and more question the mother’s guilt. So, at the end of the documentary, there was a big question mark that not only Meldrum-Hanna, but also the viewers could not rest.
“Should we just leave people with this puzzle, or will we find a platform where people can talk and communicate?” Meldrum-Hanna told the American journalism portal NiemanLab. “As an investigative journalist, I’ve never interacted with viewers like this.”
Wichitge hints vs. conspiracy theories
Meldrum-Hanna regularly posts updates and tasks for members to resolve the case. Her ABC colleagues help her to moderate the group and document new evidence. The demographics of the members would show that they had addressed exactly the target group that could provide clues: 25- to 54-year-olds. Eighty-five percent of the participants are women – and usually very committed to helping to solve the case.
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Because of the sheer size and the zealous commitment, the moderators have to do a great job. They need to prevent the group from getting completely out of control, conspiracy theories, or getting individual members to fight each other. They also need to filter out valuable hints.
Therefore, the team around Meldrum-Hanna installed additional superuser who should moderate in case of problems, and mostly recruited from ex-journalists. With old posts, they immediately disable the comment function, so people focus on the new tasks. In the first days of the group it was still allowed to comment indefinitely, meanwhile – because so many conspiracy theories boiled up – only one comment per post is allowed.
“The tools of Facebook are not good”
A big problem for the moderators is still to keep the group in check – even when it comes to complying with laws. If someone calls an allegedly suspicious person by name, this must first be noticed and then removed by hand.
ABC’s Flip Prior complains: “Facebook’s tools are not good – you can not hide individual keywords automatically, so we’ve said to Facebook since we launched the group: ‘You really need to improve your tools when you want people to use your groups. ‘”
Nevertheless, the group is a great help to the journalists: The hospital where Tegan was born has since been demolished. Meldrum-Hanna urgently needed a building plan to check a theory, but did not find it. After all, archivists who had seen their post in the Facebook group could help her.
“People love the direct exchange with the journalists, some of them just want to hear the latest news, but many want to actively help solve the case,” said Prior.
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