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The pitfalls of the armchair detective

As true crime sees a boom, amateur internet sleuths face growing questions over their role in solving crimes.

(CN) — In November 2022, the murders of four University of Idaho students in their home shocked the small town of Moscow, Idaho, and drew oglers from across the country. 

Social-media star Ashley Guillard was sure she’d cracked the case.

A TikTok influencer and self-described psychic, Guillard told her more than 100,000 followers that the killer was “possibly an ex” of one of the victims and accused Rebecca Scofield, a local history professor, of having “ordered the execution.” Scofield sued the TikTok star for defamation in December, saying the online sleuth never produced a shred of evidence to back up her wild claims.

Guillard is hardly the first person to make irresponsible claims about serious crimes on the internet. Ten years ago, when social media was still relatively new, anonymous Reddit users wrongfully accused Brown University student Sunil Tripathi of being involved in the Boston Marathon bombings.

They reasoned that Tripathi sort of looked like the bombers (he had tan complexion) and noted that he had gone missing shortly before the attacks. In fact, Tripathi was missing because he had committed suicide. His body was later found in a river in Rhode Island.

If the internet was already prone to rumor-mongering and disinformation, recent trends have made it worse. Social media has become a veritable industry, with one in four young people now saying they want to be influencers. Meanwhile, a boom in true crime has seen fame-hungry amateurs reach for their detective caps.

Regardless of what merit these armchair detectives have or lack, one thing is for certain: It’s their audience that grants them influence. With little guardrails on online speech, individual consumers must choose where to draw the line between good-faith engagement and self-serving speculation. They don’t always choose it right.

It’s a genre that has penetrated podcast charts, the New York Times bestseller list and every mainstream streaming service. Author James Renner, known for his true crime journalism and books like “True Crime Addict,” says citizen sleuths are by no means a new fixture in society. 

What is new, though, is social media.

“There have always been so-called citizen sleuths, but the recent popularity of social media outlets like TikTok, Reddit, and Twitter (now X) have overinflated their power,” Renner told Courthouse News in an email. “Armchair detectives can research alleged suspects with simple Google searches and post photos and home addresses on these apps with little accountability.”

Section 230, a longstanding standard of the federal Communications Decency Act, prevents social media companies from being held liable for damaging speech, even if that speech drives up engagement and those companies’ stock prices.

“I'm a proponent of the First Amendment,” Renner added — “but there needs to be regulation for this sort of behavior online.” He thinks social media companies should respond faster to reports of bad behavior and said “one easy fix” would be to verify the identities of users. “People who post these things anonymously are the most dangerous of the bunch.”

In recent years, there’s been no shortage of lurid true-crime stories to capture the public imagination. With social media now omnipresent, victims often leave an online presence too, allowing the public a voyeuristic peek into their once-private lives.

Millions of online sleuths followed the saga of Gabby Petito, who disappeared in 2021 while chronicling a cross-country road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie. Laundrie, who police accused of killing Petito, later committed suicide.

There’s Alex Murdaugh, the scion of a South Carolina legal family who was convicted in March of killing his son and wife. There’s Rex Heuermann, a New York architect who was charged in July with murdering at least three women in Long Island. Social media offers an endless stream of such content, with true-crime YouTube channels pumping out titles like “Son of NFL player executes sleeping parents” and “Woman dismembered w/ chainsaw and stuffed in suitcases.”


These aren’t Sherlock Holmes stories — they’re real-life tragedies that leave behind heartbroken families and friends. And yet with the rise of true-crime as a hit genre, “victims and criminals have become celebrities,” Renner said.

Those who rush courtrooms for a glimpse at killers are doing so ”for the same reason people stalk the red carpet to get a picture with Brad Pitt,” he added. “They want to show their friends that they were there, that they got close to this famous person. It's a bizarre symptom of the time.”

Amid an loneliness epidemic in the United States, maybe true-crime enthusiasts are feeling lost and lonely and are using the genre as a form of self-care. Institutions are waning and trust in civic leaders is steadily falling, leaving many people adrift and online.

Newspapers have been gutted in recent years, removing a guardrail that would have once provided more editorial oversight to true-crime stories. “We are living in a world of news deserts,” Tony Brueski, Host of the True Crime Today Podcast and Editor-in-Chief at Real Story Media, said in a phone interview. The “citizen sleuth” — or “professional independent reporter,” as Brueski also calls them — helps to fill that void.

Citizen sleuthing doesn’t have to be an inherently bad pastime. While it’s easy to view their actions through the lens of a few irresponsible players, some armchair detectives have made real breakthroughs.

Take internet sleuth Deanna Thompson, who helped track down cat killer (and later convicted murderer) Luka Magnotta as chronicled in the Netflix docuseries “Don’t F**k with Cats.” Then there’s Payne Lindsey, whose popular podcast “Up and Vanished” helped spark a new wave of investigation into the murder of schoolteacher Tara Grinstead.

In the vast world of true crime, “there are plenty of sources that do provide very good information,” Brueski said. On the other hand, “there are others who are just out there to get the clicks and get the attention.” He urged consumers to keep this in mind — and to be responsible and ethical about how they consume violent true stories.

“We used to go to colosseums and watch prisoners be eaten by lions,” he said. “Are we really doing anything that different from what we did back then?”

Before the grisly slaying of four University of Idaho students, citizens sleuthing found life in Idaho in another major case.

Lori Vallow, an Idaho mother, was arrested and later convicted for murdering her two children — prompting a Netflix docuseries and yet another viral true-crime phenomenon. Citizen sleuths had followed Vallow and her newlywed husband Chad Daybell as they traveled Hawaii amid the murder investigation, sharing updates with their followers (and law enforcement) and ultimately helping lead to her arrest.

Ross Burkhart, a professor of political science at Boise State University, says Idaho has a long history with true crime. 

“Idaho has had its share of notoriety with high-profile crime and law enforcement cases,” he said, from the murder of former Governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905 to these more recent slayings. He didn’t think these incidents said much about Idaho — it’s “a much more normal and levelheaded state than is depicted by these sensational trials,” he said — but did think they revealed something about the public’s taste for crime stories.

“Notorious cases seem to have a feedback loop,” he said. “Intense interest in them will generate even more notoriety, no matter how distasteful the details are.”

When it came to the University of Idaho murders, though, armchair detectives finally saw some pushback. Officials stressed they were looking for the truth — and they warned the public that misinformation had its consequences.

As for social-media psychic Ashley Guillard, her unfounded hunches turned out to be exactly that. Authorities have shown no interest in history professor Rebecca Scofield, instead arresting Bryan Kohberger, a criminology grad student at nearby Washington State University, on suspicion of the killings. Scofield’s defamation suit against Guillard is ongoing. Guillard tried to countersue under the First Amendment, but her claims were dismissed by a judge.

Guillard could not be reached for comment for this story. Cory Michael Carone, the attorney representing Scofield in the defamation suit, said they could not comment on the situation, citing the ongoing case.

Still, Carone did have some thoughts on true-crime influencers — none of them particularly flattering. “Armchair detectives played no role in solving the tragic crimes that occurred in Idaho recently,” he said, “but their speculation from behind a keyboard had serious consequences in the real world.”

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