It’s no secret that the true crime genre has become increasingly popular in the last decade or so. It would seem that some deep-seated part of the human psyche can’t help but enjoy the thrill of hearing about gruesome murders and unsolved mysteries.
What you might not know is that the true crime genre stretches all the way back to the time of William Shakespeare and perhaps even further. Indeed, Shakespeare’s first play released under his name, Titus Andronicus, was a story filled with murder, rape, cannibalism, and all sorts of other gruesome violence that Shakespeare probably saw firsthand in London. Now, hundreds of years after Shakespeare’s death, the true crime genre is more popular than it’s ever been.
In the election year of 2020, true crime podcasts actually outpaced political podcasts in number of listeners. This popularity of true crime has given rise to a new phenomenon: internet sleuthing.
Internet sleuthing involves people taking criminal cases into their own hands by researching open cases online and trying to solve them with the resources available to them online.
One recent high-profile case, the murder of social media influencer Gabby Petito, intrigued internet sleuths all around the world and inspired many of them to try and piece together the mystery on their own.
Some of these independent sleuths commented on how certain TikTok videos of Gabby’s did not have location tags, the reading habits of her fiance, the hiking trails that the couple went on before her death, and a wealth of other public information about Gabby’s life.
In the end, the power of the internet did help shed light on some important details about the disappearance of Gabby Petitio. However, in many other cases, internet sleuthing has actually been more detrimental to the investigative process than helpful.
It’s hard to say whether, on the whole, the internet’s fascination with true crime is helping or hurting the effort to solve crimes. In this article, we’ll look at a couple of different cases in which web sleuths helped and hurt the investigation to try and determine whether this phenomenon is good for our judicial system or not.
Internet Sleuthing Success Stories
One of the most recent instances of successful web sleuthing was during the aftermath of the 2021 riots on the United States Capitol building. Thanks to individuals across the country who scoured video footage of the riots, some of the main actors in this insurrection were identified and later arrested.
For instance, John Scott-Railton of the University of Toronto used footage found online to identify two specific individuals who were carrying handcuffs that could be used to detain people.
In his own words, Scott-Railton said, “I kept finding footage of men wearing body armor, communicating with each other and moving with purpose.” In this case, internet sleuthing proved very helpful in finding those responsible for the crime.
Another instance where internet sleuthing provided valuable evidence was in the case of the murder of Abraham Shakespeare (no known relation to William). In this case, the murderer, a woman named Dee Dee Moore who served as Shakespeare’s financial advisor after he won $30 million in the Florida lottery, actually sort of outed herself to web sleuths who reported the evidence to the authorities.
After a group of internet sleuths started discussing the case on a forum called Websleuths, Moore made an anonymous account and began defending herself on the site. The owner of the site was eventually able to match the IP address of the account to the IP address of Moore’s computer, which was later used as important evidence in Moore’s prosecution.
Sometimes, the internet is able to provide knowledge that police just don’t have. In the 2012 case of the fatal hit-and-run that killed Betty Wheeler, the Virginia police had nothing to go on except for a small piece of metal that they found at the scene of the crime.
The piece did not seem to have any identifying marks, so the police decided to turn to the website Jalopnik (a popular automotive news outlet and forum) for help. Within days, the part was identified as a piece of a Ford F-150 grill.
These car-minded web sleuths were even able to identify the model year and possible trim levels. This information eventually helped lead to the arrest of the two men that were in the vehicle at the time of the hit-and-run.
Internet Sleuthing Failures
For all the success stories, web sleuthing can also hurt the investigative process more than help it. For instance, after the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right white supremacist rally (which turned fatal when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a group of counter-protestors), web sleuths across the internet misidentified one of the organizers of the rally.
These internet detectives falsely identified this person as having been involved with the rally, accused them of being racist, demanded that they get fired from their job, and even posted their home address online. Needless to say, these amateur investigators caused more harm than good in this case.
A similar incident ended up causing a ton of strife in innocent people’s lives in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. After the bombing, the police released a photo of the perpetrators, which showed that he had been wearing a backpack and had dark hair.
This photo prompted the creation of a Reddit thread called “FindBostonBombers” dedicated to identifying the young male in the picture. Amateur web sleuths ended up falsely accusing a number of people of being the bomber, thus ruining their reputations in certain circles.
In certain cases, the efforts of web sleuths can even be detrimental to the victims and their families. After Maura Murray went missing in 2004, her mysterious disappearance became a favorite topic for the internet’s true crime community.
As a result, internet sleuths began digging up every aspect of Murray’s life. Eventually, her sexual history and information about her eating disorder were released online. In this case, the efforts of internet sleuths led to the slandering of Murray and the humiliation of her family.
So… Is Internet Sleuthing Good or Bad?
Despite the fact that people on the internet have helped solve crimes in certain instances, engaging in web sleuthing is, for the most part, irresponsible and even dangerous. Unlike within the police force, there are no real rules or protocols for amateur internet investigations that ensure that the investigators’ conduct is responsible and ethical.
Anyone who does not have extensive police training should not involve themselves with ongoing investigations. You could risk destroying the reputation of someone else or even risk doing something illegal yourself.
If you do happen to come across some information online (or anywhere else) that seems pertinent to an ongoing investigation, turn that information over to the police before jumping to conclusions and falsely accusing people of crimes.
Let the professionals go through the legal process of arresting and prosecuting suspects. Don’t try to be Batman and go all “vigilante justice” on someone because you think you’ve connected the dots on TikTok. It may seem like you’re being noble, but you’re not. That’s just dangerous and irresponsible.