Internet Sleuths Chase the Truth

Citizens using social media can intervene in professional investigations



Internet sleuths can have harmful effects on anyone who is involved with a criminal case such as authorities, families, and victims.

Bella Gallus, Managing Editor

The Criminal Justice System and social media have become involuntary partners in solving crime in recent years. Social media has proved to be an effective tool because it allows citizens to stay updated on court cases, information on suspects, arrests, press releases, trials, and much more, according to Applied Social Psychology (ASP). However, partnered with these advantages are profuse drawbacks, such as fast-spreading misinformation and false accusations. 

A number of internet sleuths have surfaced on all kinds of different platforms and have been the subject of various documentaries. A Facebook group featured in the Netflix docuseries Don’t F**k with Cats investigated videos of a man harming cats and eventually provided vital evidence used in his conviction. In other investigations and criminal cases, social media has hindered investigations and affected those directly related to the case, especially during the University of Idaho murders, in Moscow, Idaho. 

On November 13, 2022, four college students attending the University of Idaho — Madison Mogen, 21; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; Xana Kernodle, 20; and Ethan Chapin, 20 — were murdered in their home. After nearly two months, authorities arrested the suspect. 

During the investigation, a number of true crime fanatics began to propose their own theories, opinions, and criticisms on social media — specifically TikTok. When hundreds of internet sleuths attempted to solve these horrifying murders, they often caused more pain than comfort to grieving family members and friends, as they spread their invalid and baseless theories. 

Social media is a network. It is a network where all types of information spread quickly. The sheer speed of the spread of information on the internet is unmatched — but the information is also permanent. The harassment, threats, and pain are permanent. 

A Moscow Police Department (MPD) press release on December 13, 2022, stated, “Rumors and speculation have also affected the families of the victims, friends, and fellow students. In some cases, this has led to harassing and threatening behavior toward potentially involved parties.” Additionally, the MPD threatened to press charges against the offending groups.

The harassment has yet to stop. Rather,, it has accelerated. One victim’s ex-boyfriend became a target of internet harassment, based on calls records that were released early on in the case, according to the New York Post.

Additionally, on TikTok, a self-proclaimed psychic, Ashley Guillard, accused Rebecca Scofield, a University of Idaho professor and History Department Chair, of the murders. As of an MPD press release on December 27, 2022, Scofield was not considered a suspect. Scofield is currently suing Guillard for defamation.

False accusations like these are harmful, and there is no excuse for spreading misinformation all over the internet. Whether it was well-intended or for personal profit, these accusations and theories can interfere with the integrity of the case. Investigators carefully craft press releases according to a system in order to avoid interlopers.

 According to Discover Policing — a website supported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) — and the Community Oriented Policing Services Office (COPS), releasing information is often limited so that it will not hinder an investigation. Until the investigation is closed only descriptions of the crime, victim(s), and suspect(s) are released.

The MPD battled the constantly distorted accounts on social media throughout their investigation. In an MPD press release from December 13, 2022, the department urged “the public to stay focused on the official facts released by the Moscow Police Department,” because “rumors and speculation have led members of the public to provide tips based on rumors rather than official information provided about the case.”

Fortunately, the MPD and FBI agents successfully arrested their suspect, despite the persistent intervention from the public. Social media, in the case of the University of Idaho murders, may have had seemingly good intentions, but users brought permanent pain to many innocent individuals.