The online circus around Nicola Bulley’s death shows what harm armchair detectives can do Karin McClure The Skeptic

If you’re in the UK I’d be surprised if you hadn’t heard about the missing person case of Nicola Bulley, a 45 year old woman who seemingly vanished while walking her dog along the river Wyre in Lancashire on the 27th of January 2023. The story was hard to miss. News outlets had it running as one of their main stories for weeks. As the circumstances around her disappearance were considered unusual, it was understandably an intriguing story. She seemed to have vanished out of thin air.

The police quickly released their hypothesis that Nicola may have fallen into the river, and that they didn’t believe any foul play was involved. Unfortunately for the police – and more importantly Nicola’s family – the armchair detectives of TikTok and beyond decided that wasn’t a good enough explanation, and so valiantly took it upon themselves to investigate further… much further. Actually, way too far.

My social media feeds were quickly inundated with posts about the disappearance, and how people just weren’t buying the police’s theory. People don’t just end up in rivers. There had to be more to it, right? According to the armchair detectives, yes, there had to be much more to it.

Armchair detectives are nothing new of course, and with the increase of social media use, true crime popularity and camera phones, it’s becoming easier and easier to become way too involved in real crime cases. One of the most well-known incidents (up until the Bulley disappearance) of internet sleuths interfering and getting it very, very wrong was what happened after the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. On this occasion, the amateur investigator HQ was Reddit.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, a manhunt began – both officially by the FBI, and unofficially online. A subreddit named r/FindBostonBomber was quickly set up, and it was soon inundated with photos and video clips from users who thought they had spotted potential suspects. One individual named was Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old student. A witch hunt began for Tripathi. However, he was innocent. In fact, he had been reported missing by his family one month prior to the bombing, and on the 23rd of April 2013 his body was found in the Seekonk River – four days after the actual perpetrators of the attack were found and an arrest made.

After the arrest, posts about Tripathi disappeared, but the damage was already done. Sunil’s family had been hounded by the public and the press. Sunil’s death was ultimately ruled as a suicide.

Reddit received heavy scrutiny after the real culprits were found, and warnings were made about this kind of thing happening again, however it proved far from the last such incident. I fear there’s no real stopping it.

True crime and the DIY detective

To try and understand why armchair detectives have become so prevalent and such a nuisance to official investigations, you just have to look back over the past ten years or so. True crime has become a leading form of entertainment, mostly thanks to the huge popularity of true crime documentaries and podcasts. You could argue that Sarah Keonig’s podcast Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murder documentary series from 2015 were a starting point for a lot of people getting into the genre, and it’s easy to see why. The stories in these shows and podcasts are evocative, they’re tense and exciting. They weave a narrative that keeps you hooked and often leave you to speculate as to the truth – even if that means skewing some details to fit the narrative. They also often have a recurring theme of inadequate and dodgy police work, creating an idea that if you want the real story, you need to seek it out yourself, because the police and their version of events can’t be trusted.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some truth to that – I’m certainly not saying the police do a stellar job, and that there isn’t ample evidence of police failings. In fact, the police haven’t been doing themselves any favours to gain public trust (and they certainly didn’t help themselves during the search for Nicola Bulley) but there is a real danger in seeing police incompetence and assuming that you, an untrained member of the public can do a better job… and then to set out to do that job. Especially when it leads to real harm and the spreading of dangerous misinformation.

There’s a conflation of incompetence and conspiracy when it comes to official investigations in the minds of the armchair detectives. Equally, there is simply a misunderstanding of how criminal investigations are actually carried out, which leads them to believing that the public are entitled to more information, that the withholding of that information by police is a clear sign that there is more going on and it is therefore their duty to get to the truth. The ‘real’ truth.

The University of Idaho killings

On the 13th of November 2022 in Idaho, USA, four students were found murdered in their student home. News of the murders quickly spread online. It had all the hallmarks of a juicy murder case: four young victims, two surviving roommates who apparently saw and heard nothing, no initial appearance of any theft, and no signs of forced entry. The longer it went without an arrest being made, the more intriguing the case became – especially for the armchair detectives who, of course, took it upon themselves to solve the case.

TikTok was full of theories. The strangest of which involved someone creating a virtual walkthrough of the house, taking information from a property website with a floorplan, speculating the route of the murderer. Others I saw analysing the body language of the victims’ families and friends at a memorial service. Alarmingly, all the posts related to this case had hundreds, sometimes thousands of views, and their comment sections were full of people thanking the posters for their work and encouraging more.

The majority of the conclusions I saw being made with almost all of this ‘evidence’ was that we, the public, weren’t being told everything, and that this was a problem. People were adamant that the public had a right to know what the police had found and what they knew, and in doing so they blamed the police for making the public do their own investigation. It was bizarre.

On the 30th of December 2022, police blindsided the TikTok sleuths by making an arrest and charging someone with the murders. The man they arrested wasn’t any of their ‘prime suspects’. He was someone completely unrelated to any of the victims. TikTok was confused. There was a strange outrage at the police for… catching the murderer? Y’know, doing their job.

In a slightly redacted probable cause affidavit released by the police, they outlined their summary of the evidence that led to the arrest. It detailed how one of the roommates had in fact seen the accused when he was in the home, and gave a detailed description of the man. This detail had TikTok in an uproar. They just couldn’t understand why the roommate in question hadn’t said anything to the press, or anywhere online.

What the TikTok sleuths failed to realise – or just refused to acknowledge – is that while they were conducting their intrusive and unnecessary investigation, the police were doing their own. The police, unlike TikTok had been inside the house, and weren’t just looking at a haphazard virtual tour of the home. They had collected evidence and deemed which evidence was relevant, interviewed witnesses, and built a case around their suspect.

The people online claiming conspiracy and a ‘cover-up’ in these cases have a complete misunderstanding of how criminal investigations are carried out. If the police released all the evidence they had gathered to the public, it would heavily jeopardise their case. There’s a reason why the police warn social media against speculation and comment during investigations and subsequent trials – it can influence potential jury members, and lead to arguments for an unfair trial. In other words, it could result in guilty parties dodging the justice that the TikTok sleuths crave.

The search for Nicola Bulley

Returning to the Bulley missing person case, on the 19th of February 2023, 3 weeks after she was reported missing, a body was found and retrieved from the river Wyre, just a couple of miles from where Nicola was last seen; on the 20th of February, the police announced that the body was identified as her. The family of Nicola released a statement after the tragic news, heavily criticising the behaviour of the media and the ‘so called experts’ who had interfered and turned what should have been a delicate missing person’s case into a circus.

TikTok was inundated with new theories. Some of which I can only imagine came from a complete misunderstanding of how rivers work. There were claims that the body had to have been planted there, because how could it have been found only now, after three weeks, so close by? Again, conspiracy was rampant – despite the family begging for all the speculation to stop. If you were to type ‘Nicola Bulley’ into the TikTok search bar, the recommended results were ghoulish. ‘Nicola Bulley body recovery’, ‘Nicola Bulley river map’, and ‘Nicola Bulley psychic’.

this isn’t very nice but I think it’s important to see search requests being made on TikTok and question why the hell some of them are visible to the public who might be searching for non-harmful information. this is what came up just now when I typed ‘Nicola Bulley’ 1/

— Sophia Smith Galer (@sophiasgaler) February 21, 2023

One of the scariest kind of posts I saw on TikTok after the body was discovered involved fabricated news reports about arrests being made, and the conclusions of the coroner’s report. They used fake news channels scrolling banners, creepy AI voices and hashtags like #coronerreport and #nicolabulleymurder. Anyone who took a moment to check the information in these posts would quickly see that they are fake, but the comment sections were full of people believing them without question.

The world may never know what exactly happened to Nicola, and quite frankly, it’s none of our business. With no foul play or suspicious circumstances, and there being no threat to the public, the case should have continued out of the press and away from social media speculation. The Bulley family, much like the family of Sunil Tripathi and those of the four students in Idaho, have suffered greatly and continue to do so. Not just from the tragic loss of their loved ones, but from the ghoulish and relentless speculation that has followed.

True crime is just that: it is crime, and it is true. It’s real people and real pain and suffering. The armchair detectives seem to forget this, or they just choose to ignore it. If they took a moment to put themselves into the shoes of the families involved, and tried to imagine how they would feel if they were the target of such wild speculation and abuse on top of losing their loved ones, maybe they would think twice. But unfortunately, one thing that is sincerely lacking in the behaviour of these ‘sleuths’ is empathy. They also lack critical thinking and reason, jumping to wild conclusions that defy logic and desperately trying to ‘expose’ their own ideas of the truth, without thinking or caring about how damaging those ideas are.

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The disappearance of Nicola Bulley saw armchair detectives, primed by a love of true crime and an over-abundance of confidence, flood the internet with uninformed and harmful speculation
The post The online circus around Nicola Bulley’s death shows what harm armchair detectives can do appeared first on The Skeptic.