Is TikTok changing the way the police solve crimes?

TikTok and the content culture also applies to police investigations. While sometimes people can help investigations, some viral content can do a lot of damage. 

For better or worse, the internet has helped turn criminal investigations (overwhelmingly those involving a certain type of victim) into large-scale crowdsourcing initiatives. Following the mid-November murders of four University of Idaho students (Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle, Kaylee Goncalves and Madison Mogen), local police reported receiving nearly 20,000 tips in about six weeks before making an arrest; the official population of Moscow, Idaho is about 26,000.

The renewed attention to this case is not surprising. We have become accustomed to a crime that is particularly prominent in the public imagination being amplified by social networks that encourage content flows around a news story. On YouTube, the main clips related to the Idaho murders have been viewed over a million times each. On TikTok, videos tagged with #idahokiller, #idahocase and #idahocaseupdate had over 396 million views. We had already seen this level of armchair analysis during the disappearance of influencer Gabby Petito in 2021, when content creators offered their analysis and theories along with the actual investigation.

What have we learned in the meantime? That the internet abhors a vacuum and encourages rampant speculation in the name of civic duty and influence; that it doesn't take much more than the front camera of a phone to become a talking head; that the true crime genre has turned into a full-blown live news economy.

Considering how far the TikTokification of crime stories has come, the Idaho murder case marks a stage where online theories have begun to turn into real consequences. On YouTube, a victim's ex-boyfriend was the subject of a video by a so-called journalist who presented the "red flags" he presented as a potential suspect (creator's note on the video: "Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this video are for educational purposes and are my opinion only. Opinions are not facts."); a family member of the ex-boyfriend told the New York Post that he was devastated to be seen as potentially responsible by "half of America". In December, a University of Idaho history professor filed a defamation lawsuit against a TikTokker who, aided by tarot cards and nearly 116,000 followers, made a series of videos accusing the professor of having a romantic relationship with one of the victims and being responsible for the students' deaths; the lawsuit says the professor now fears for his life. You can see where this is going. 

Bryan Kohberger's arrest at the end of December did not stop the internet from picking up the case, as authorities released court documents that revealed new evidence. According to the affidavit, one of the victims' roommates, identified as D.M., said she saw a strange, masked man in the house on the night of the murders; she told authorities she locked herself in her room afterwards. Online detectives immediately seized on this anomaly: They demanded to know why it took nearly noon the next day for help to be called. A new series of videos alternately accusing and defending D.M.'s actions surfaced. TikTok videos bearing the housemate's full name have been viewed more than 57 million times. The Daily Mail published photos of the young woman returning home after having coffee at Starbucks.

In the end, the question is: Is this trend of live true-crime, with all its excesses, justified by the results in the real world? How do we quantify, for example, the degree of attention paid to social media content that might have advanced the case of a missing influencer, as in the case of Petito? Or the five-year dedication of an 85,000-member Reddit group (plus the efforts of a true-crime podcast) on the 2017 Delphi, Indiana, murder case that last October led to the arrest of a suspect? 

Do these advances made possible by Reddit open the door to a form of tolerance? Should we accept the proliferation of thousands of pieces of content on TikTok, hoping that one of them will save a life? 

The media have been sensationalising and disseminating unverified theories long before TikTok came along. Whether they should now give voice to mere Reddit theories or mega-viral videos assumes that the public has not already discovered this content through algorithms. The race seems lost.