The Idaho murders set a grim new low for the internet investigation

The Idaho murders set a grim new low for the internet investigation

The Idaho murders set a grim new low for the internet investigation

On November 13, 2022, four University of Idaho students — Ethan Chapin, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle, and Madison Mogen — were found dead at the home where the the last three rented near the campus. Everyone had apparently been stabbed in bed. Two other students lived in the house and were apparently in their rooms that night; they were unharmed.

From the public’s point of view, the case initially had few clues: an unknown attacker, an unknown motive. Law enforcement officials in the university city of Moscow, Idaho, initially offered little information to the public about the evidence they had gathered in their investigation. Into that void came a frenzy of public speculation—and soon public denunciations. The familiar alchemy kicked in: the real crime became a “true crime” as the weeks passed; The murders became a dark form of interactive entertainment as people debated and analyzed them and competed to solve them.

Unfounded rumors spread online as people with no connection to the murdered students tried to make sense of a senseless crime. They not only accused an attacker or several of them, but also drugs, revenge, bullying and more. They dug deep into students’ TikToks and Instagram feeds, looking for clues. They wrote the students’ lives and their deaths. As the weeks went by, their numbers grew. A Facebook group dedicated to discussion and speculation about the killings currently has more than 230,000 members. Subreddits dedicated to the same have more than 100,000 members each. Their contributions range from minute forensic analyzes – analyzes of autopsy reports and the knife allegedly used in the murders – to largely theoretical ones. (One post addressing a blind article by DeuxMoi wondered aloud if Kim Kardashian would meddle in the case.)

Many of the members who have offered – and continue to offer – their theories probably mean well. Amateur detectives helped uncover the identities of some victims of the Golden State serial killer; The mother of Gabby Petito, who was killed in 2021, has praised the many people who played a crucial role in solving her daughter’s murder, scouring social media for leads. But seeking crowdsourced justice in the Idaho murders has tended to thwart justice itself. It complicated investigations on the ground and caused more casualties than baseless allegations. With remarkable ease, the pain of some people became the enigma of other people.

Theories about the murders sometimes read as fan fiction. Across TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube, people pointed fingers based on strong hunches and seemingly no evidence — allegations that were then reinforced by others. The fantastic theories soon crept into the lives of real people. Posters showed the two unharmed roommates. (They “need to know more than they’re letting on,” says a video caption.) They turned their gaze to the owner of a food truck where two of the students had stopped before heading home on the night of the killings. (“Possible stalker?” one detective wondered.) Police officers investigating the real crime while the “real thing” was happening online eliminated both the roommate and the truck owner as suspects, among other things. The Moscow Police Department’s website now has a Rumor Control section, a notable modification of its FAQ section that attempts to combat some of the misinformation swirling around. Among the questions the section answers are “Who will NOT be involved?”, “What resources are being used to investigate this murder?” and “Are there reports of skinned dogs related to this murder?” (They are not .)

“Everyone wants to make something crazier out of it. It has to get crazier,” says one of the detectives who provided information on Gabby Petito’s case, in a documentary that premiered months after her murder. The keyword in the woman’s comment is not crazier; it is want. The amateur detectives in the Petito case must have been motivated by generosity and outrage and the pursuit of justice. But they also benefited from participating in it: followers, likes, the fickle currencies of the content economy.

Speculation about the Idaho murders took on a similar frenzy. Reading through all the theories — or scrolling or watching — means you sense an appropriation in the game: people weren’t just trying to solve the case, they were trying to claim the tragedy as their own. (“Please stop turning these poor kids into your identity,” pleaded a recent Reddit post. It was upvoted more than 2,200 times.) The baseless — sometimes fanciful — speculation continued despite investigators’ repeated attempts to suppress them. The rumors added chaos to their investigation, they said. They brought even more trauma to the mourners.

In their attempts to fact-check insinuations, official investigators have been confronted with the most powerful enemy of all: the trending topic. The killings — with very specific types of victims and particularly horrific circumstances — quickly became matters of national interest. That also made them an incentive for content creators. On Youtube, vanity fair‘s Delia Cai pointed out that the top news clips covering the killings each have more than 1 million views. On TikTok, videos claiming a connection to the killings — #idahocase, #idahocaseupdate, #idahokiller — now total more than 400 million views. These true crime depictions are not bound by fairness or evidence. Content is tautological in eyeball economics. When attention is its own reward, the alluring attitude is more valuable than the true one. This is the boring tragedy that underlies the acute one: the murders made numbers.

As strangers wrote themselves into history—competing, as one expert put it, “to make a connection or uncover a secret, often for likes, shares, clicks, and attention”—they caused even more heartache. Some of the victims’ friends and classmates received death threats during their grief. People released the names and pictures of those who knew the victims, accusing them of vague connections to the crime. (The posters usually kept anonymous.) One YouTuber analyzed the “red flags” allegedly represented by Kaylee Goncalves’ ex-boyfriend — leading to what his aunt said New York Post, aggravated trauma: grieving the loss of the woman he dated for five years and coming to terms with the fact that “half America” ​​believed him to be a murderer. He was ruled out as a suspect by police officers. But the speculation will remain – spun by posters armed with hunches and made permanent in the archives.

And so many lost their humanity in the name of justice. They treated real people as characters in a procedure that wasn’t broadcast on their TVs but on their phones and computers.CSI or law & order, play in real time. And they, in turn, treated the characters as texts to be read, analyzed, and vilified. People looking to make big finds searched the obituaries of other University of Idaho students who had died in recent years, trying to connect their deaths to the murders. The father of one of these students asked her to stop trying to connect his own child’s death to these other dead children.

But the sleuths continued — even when police arrested Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old graduate student in Washington state, just outside Moscow, on December 30. Kohberger had studied criminology. Charged with four counts of murder and one burglary, he is currently being held without bail in Idaho. His attorney has said he is “eager to be exonerated.” Investigators have cited cellphone data, surveillance footage and DNA samples as evidence they say they will use to link him to the crime. Earlier this week, authorities prosecuting the case released a 49-page document detailing facts gathered over weeks of investigations. Some of the information is similar to the theories of the internet. A lot of it doesn’t.

Criminal procedure is a uniquely formulaic genre. One of its essential elements is the cathartic ending: the big reveal, the shocking twist. This story is unlikely to have such a payoff for audiences. Kohberger faces criminal charges and may or may not be found guilty. Prosecutors will rely on evidence, detailed and boring, to make their case. Meanwhile, speculation continues – despite the arrest and despite the damage done to people who authorities say have no connection to the case. Shortly after the murders, TikToker Ashley Guillard claimed to have solved the case. The murders were ordered by a history professor at the University of Idaho, she announced. (Indeed, by the head of his history department.) Guillard shared a picture of the professor in videos that have been viewed more than 2 million times. Guillard says she drew her conclusions from a deck of cards and maintained her suspicion of the professor’s guilt, even though the official investigation ruled them out as suspects. But Guillard has been defiant in the face of the facts. She will continue, she said the Washington Post– even now that the professor has filed a libel suit against her for damaging her reputation and fearing for her safety. “I’ll keep posting,” Guillard said. “I don’t take anything down.”

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