Internet Sleuths and True Crime: Helpful or Hurtful to Cases?

September 29, 2021 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

It’s not new or surprising that a large portion of people take an interest in true crime. For years there have been TV shows, documentaries, and movies all revolving around real, true crime stories. There is something fascinating and addicting about finding out about a case and trying to solve it. It could be that it gives people the sense that they’re helping authorities solve the crime.

Given the most recent national case that caused an uproar: the Gabby Petito case—people all over the world were quick to jump to social media platforms to try and piece together the missing case themselves. The spread of these conspiracies and insights on the case have spread like rapid fire. On TikTok alone, videos tagged with #GabbyPetito had been viewed over 900 million times.

In one of the sleuthing posts, a user commented on how Gabby’s last two Instagram posts didn’t have a tagged location, unlike the rest of her online content. Additional deep dives have done extensive research into Gabby’s Spotify playlists, reading habits from her fiancé Brian Laundrie, and even the digital hiking trails the couple would mark.

A new term that has come around with the increased interest of true crime is internet sleuths. An internet sleuth is a person who searches the internet for information on a person or an event, doing a kind of detective work through the internet. With the rise of these “internet sleuths”, it raises the question: Are they actually helping? Or is it harmful to the investigation of a case? A look at cases where sleuthing has helped, how the authorities feel, and whether misinformation plays a role in this hobby-turned-side-investigative career.

Is this a Case of Community Policing?

First, it’s important to define what exactly community policing is. Community policing is a collaboration between the police and the community, where the two can identify and solve community issues together.

The idea is that the authorities are not the only guardians of law and order, and that members of the community can help become allies to enhance the safety and quality of their community. Although it sounds nice in theory, there are plenty of implications that arise with community policing. For one, it would require police organizations to drastically change the way they work.

Typically, the police will provide their assistance in solving problems and offering helpful resources. Citizens would then instead voice their concern and contribute their own advice on how to handle issues, and even act on the current concerns. It’s obvious that a successful collaboration would involve patience and understanding across the board.

It’s hard to say whether acting as an internet sleuth would be considered community policing. For one, it seems like the authorities would have to be aware of the supposed collaboration, and actively use what information the citizens are providing. In the case of internet sleuthing, posts go viral within hours on various social media platforms. It is not as if the authorities are reaching out to the public and asking them to attempt to do the investigative work themselves. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be ignored, either.

What Cases of Internet Sleuths Have Been Successful?

As the Gabby Petito case exploded with virality online, there was one person who had helpful information regarding the case. A fellow “van life” traveler, Jenn Bethune, noticed that she had been very close to Gabby and Brian’s last known location. After searching through the videos she had taken, she found solid evidence that wasn’t just a wild, speculative theory.

Jenn and her husband Kyle had been in Grand Teton National Park while Gabby was there with her fiancé. Jenn says she remembers seeing a white van. Jenn tells the New York Times, “Lo and behold, we saw it, clear as day” referring to Gabby and Brian’s white van. The couple immediately informed the FBI and uploaded the video to social media, where it instantly went viral.

After finding and sharing the video on Saturday, September 18th, the police uncovered Gabby’s missing body from a spot not far away from where Jenn’s video had taken place. This is an example of when sleuthing has helped from a non-authoritative person.

Here is a list of other instances where internet sleuths have been successful in helping solve a case:

  • During a 2012 hit and run, police were searching for a “blue late-model Ford”a description that is not very detailed. However, members of the automotive site, Jalopnik, were able to provide helpful information to the Virginia Police Department in order to solve a fatal hit and run by correctly identifying a fallen off piece of a truck.  
  • The storming of the U.S. capital that happened in early 2021 saw groups of internet sleuths coming together to identify suspects from pictures and videos inside the Capital building, getting several people arrested or fired from their jobs after outing them to authorities.
  • After Florida resident Abraham Shakespeare won the lottery in 2009, he was murdered. Police were trying to solve the murder, with his financial advisor Dee Dee Moore as the main suspect even though there was not enough evidence to prove it. That was until Moore herself started commenting on the Websleuths website to defend herself, without realizing the matching IP address would provide authorities with the proof they needed.
  • A long-time missing persons cold case from 1988 was solved in 2011 thanks to a network of internet sleuths on Websleuths. A skeleton found in a vacant lot was finally identified as Lynda Jane Hart, solving the case.

What are the Risks to Internet Sleuthing?

According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2016 the U.S. reported having nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies. However, an additional study shows that only about 7% of those have units dedicated to solving cold cases. There’s clearly a wide gap in the resources currently available to focus on missing persons and cold cases.

This makes it apparent that there is space for crowd-sleuthing, because it’s better that someone is giving attention to unsolved cases, right? One could argue that internet sleuthing is helping authorities to make society safer by harnessing the power of the internet’s centralized information to provide extra protection for citizens.

Yet, the question still remains: can there be a risk to this vigilante-style crime solving? Here is a list of the ways that internet sleuthing can go wrong, and potentially be harmful:

  • Since these are not professional investigators, important mistakes can be made. Examples of this can be seen from:
    • The 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right march, where people on social media falsely identified someone thought to be involved in the march. The innocent person accused had people across the internet demanding he get fired from his job, accused him of being racist, and even went as far as posting his address on the internet.
    • The 2013 Boston Marathon Reddit thread “FindBostonBombers” went extremely viral after the marathon’s tragedy, and people were scanning pictures of the event to try to identify the young male with dark hair and a backpack. The internet sleuths used unconfirmed police scanners and ruined the reputations of several innocent people when making their accusations. Since Reddit is an anonymous site, there were no consequences for anyone involved. One article even went as far as to accuse these internet sleuths as being a racist “Where’s Wally”.
  • Internet sleuths don’t have to abide by any standards, which can be problematic in the act of solving a crime.

The internet has no type of restraints as there are in the policing world. Authorities are sworn to follow a detailed list of protocols in their day to day work to ensure what they are doing is legal and ethical. One could argue that there are no rules on the internet, and that some have even violated serious confidentiality laws in the process of solving crimes.

Police have been vocal about internet sleuths’ practice of doxing. Doxing is considered a malicious act when a person reveals someone’s identity or personal information online. This can include their name, address, workplace, financial information, social security number, criminal history, and personal photos. Although doxing has many consequences to those wrongfully accused and violated, it is not technically illegal if the exposed information was obtained using legal methods. However, doxing can fall under the laws of cyberstalking, harassment, and threats.

Click here to read our page about cyberstalking and the potential penalties.

Internet sleuthing can be a double-edged sword from playing “fantasy investigator”.

Although there are cases that have been solved with the help of internet sleuthing, the reality is that the likelihood of it happening on a regular basis is extremely rare. Considering it takes the police extensive training and excessive resources to solve a crime, we can assume it would be even more difficult and time consuming for non-professionals.  

What Do Authorities Think?

There are mixed reviews on average citizens blowing up on social media due to their posting of a trending case.

Considering most social media platforms have a competitive nature when it comes to posting and views, there have been assumptions that many users take advantage of the ongoing or “trending” cases just to gain popularity. Former New York Police Department detective Michael Alcazar gave a comment to ABC regarding this matter, claiming that people become fixated on the “nonsense”:

“When people come up with their own theories…we think about it and if it’s something useful we’ll take it into consideration, but most of the time people don’t have the experience and they might be delving in a little too much. A lot of these social media people might be doing this to gain viewership. It’s definitely inspiring a lot of social media people to become internet detectives, and some might provide some good information—many won’t—but that’s for us to decipher as investigators.”

Final Thoughts

It seems like the majority of people using their free time to investigate cases are doing it with good intentions. We can see that in certain cases this vigilante “hobby” can prove to be successful and help authorities catch people who may have walked away free if extra attention wasn’t given to the case.

John Scott-Railton, from Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, discussed internet sleuths in an interview with NPR: “Crowdsourcing is not the same thing as a formal investigation. It’s certainly not a replacement for the investigations done by the judicial system, [but] it’s an excellent mechanism for surfacing clues.”

Former detective Alcazar gives this final comment, with somewhat of a differing outlook: “People think they can solve a crime in half an hour. They think it’s that easy. They don’t really care about the case. They just want to take advantage of the time and to draw [listeners]”.

Regardless of the opinions behind internet sleuths, when they are successful in solving a crime, I think it safe to agree that it is beneficial to both the police and the community. With the continuing modernization of technology and social media platforms, it will be interesting to see if and how police move forward with working with internet sleuths.

This article was written by Karissa Key

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