In a Pennsylvania town, a Facebook group fills the local news void

The day after Thanksgiving 2019, residents of Chippewa Township, Pennsylvania, watched from their windows as state and local police combed through their backyards looking for Kyle Michael Jones. 

Jones, 26, had a long rap sheet for offenses like reckless driving and disorderly conduct. He had responded to an officer’s attempted traffic stop by jumping out of his car and making a run for it. 

Information about Jones wouldn’t be public for days, so as helicopters flew overhead and police dogs searched the surrounding woods, residents logged on to Facebook. And that’s when the fear, and the exaggerations, and the falsehoods begin to circulate and multiply.

“Word is he escaped from Detroit where he killed someone,” a woman offered in The News Alerts of Beaver County, a public Facebook group where 43,000 members — roughly a quarter of the county population — post and comment on local news from potholes and closing businesses to lost dogs and suspected criminals on the loose. 

Chatter in The News Alerts of Beaver County group, which counts Chippewa Township among its 53 municipalities, moves fast. Earlier the same day, local police had had to dispel rumors spread in the group about an attempted kidnapping in the riverside shopping town of Monaca. Hours later and 10 miles north, as police searched for Jones, group members tuned into the police scanner and began to describe what they were hearing. 

Jones was thin, they said, missing one shoe and a sock. Someone claimed that he had a gun. Someone else posted that they had heard gunshots nearby. Another thought they had heard a gun firing at a playground. A man posted that he had sent his wife and children to the basement and was guarding his door with a loaded gun. “When I started reading those posts, I was losing my mind,” said Chippewa Township Police Chief Eric Hermick, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who officially took the top job overseeing Chippewa Township’s 13-person police force in January 2020.

The comments came in faster than the group’s administrator could moderate them – hundreds of them in an hour. Just as many panicked phone calls were placed to 911 operators and the local police precinct, according to police and the director of emergency management services. 

Jones was no murderer, but local police say that for the umpteenth time the group’s Facebook posts needlessly frightened a town and tied up officers who had to combat rumors when they should have been investigating crimes. 

Members of the community say ineffective communication caused confusion, especially an emergency services push alert sent to smartphones in the area that warned residents to stay inside to avoid a potentially armed person. 

For all the chaos, Jones turned himself in. He was charged with “fleeing to elude an officer” and 14 other traffic-related charges — but no murders or shootings.

In an interview from his office last year, surrounded by unpacked cardboard boxes spilling with uniforms and…

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