TAMPA (FOX 13) - When 4-year-old Becky Lewis was returned to her family Tuesday after being abducted last weekend at her Lakeland home, it was the end of a new chapter in the story of the Amber Alert.
The system to help find missing children in the critical first hours of a suspected abduction was first used in Texas in 1996. The alert is named for Amber Hagerman, a 9 year-old who was abducted and murdered in Arlington.
The system is designed to quickly publicize information about abducted children using radio, television and signage. The Amber Alert became a national program in 2003. According to the Justice Department, more than 800 abducted children have been safely rescued because of Amber Alerts.
But Becky's case brings to light a major evolution of the success of the Amber Alert - how they're viewed and shared on social media.
"I looked at my phone and she had on the same outfit," hospital worker Kaitlyn Brown told reporters after she spotted Becky and her alleged abductor in a hallway at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.
Brown was having lunch, reading her Facebook feed when it happened.
"The simple act of checking your Facebook feed can actually help find a missing child," says Chris Boex, of FOX 13's social media team. "It's kind of hard to believe that's where we are, but that's exactly what happened in this case."
FOX 13 and media outlets across five states posted updated information as the alleged abductor, West Hogs, and Becky were spotted between Florida and Tennessee. The posts became a guide for a new kind of digital search party operating in real time.
"We created content to compel people to share our posts because we still had a child who was missing," says Christie O'Sullivan of the FOX 13 Social Media Team.
Hundreds of thousands of people viewed various posts created by Bay Area media outlets. Many millions saw the Amber Alert and associated it with content posted on social media across the nation. It's a considerable step up from just signs along the highway.
For Becky, the viral spread of the Amber Alert was her savior. Had her picture not appeared on Brown's Facebook feed, the story may have had a different ending.
"I'm just really glad things worked out," said Brown. "I'm just thankful she's safe with her family."