In quest to help, online sleuths put innocents in crosshairs

Idaho College Killings

(NewsNation) — The unsolved killings of the four University of Idaho students have re-engaged the online sleuthing community, which gained notoriety and membership during the search for Gabby Petito in 2021.

We’re talking about those who scroll through social media — turning in their day jobs to become armchair detectives by night. In the vacuum of information from Moscow police, their voices are louder than ever.

NewsNation host Ashleigh Banfield has been reporting on this case since the beginning and has taken a hard look at what’s helpful, and what may go too far.

From the start, amateur “investigators” shared their theories on the Moscow, Idaho, quadruple slayings.

The case has gripped the nation.

People are craving as much information as possible, trying to put the pieces together themselves. It’s been partly fueled by a lack of information from police.

“Everyone has an opinion, and they want to come out and say it. So, what that does is it detracts from the public’s ability to trust the information that is out there,” said Aaron Snell, a spokesman for the Moscow Police Department. “We want to be the source.”

Police have always had to work around rumors. They sift through leads, discarding the hoaxes and the hearsay to get to the credible tips.

But the sheer volume of tips in this case could take a toll on police resources. They could also crack the case.

Nearly 500 “digital media” tips have come into an FBI page dedicated to the case.

The Moscow police are on rumor control, both on their website and during their news conferences.  Often the rumors get started on social media.

Social media sites are seizing the moment, setting algorithms to gain traction on the Idaho case.

On TikTok, posts with the hashtag #idahomurders have more than 90 million views.

Reddit has forums with 27,000 members, and private Facebook groups, each with tens of thousands of people; all are talking about the Idaho killings and ripe with wild speculation. Many are delving into the victims’ own social media accounts.

But these crowdsourced investigations can also ruin lives as people track down so-called suspects on their own.

First, it was a young man in a hoodie seen at a food truck in a video that surfaced days after the killings. Police were flooded with questions about who he was.

Kaylee Goncalves’ sister, Alivea, helped find that video and gave it to police.

“I think there were a lot of people who were curious about that person. We were able to identify him and as far as I know he has cooperated with police,” Alivea Goncalves told NewsNation’s Chris Cuomo.

Police have since cleared that man.

But online sleuths soon turned their attention to a new suspect — a neighbor of the victims named Jeremy Reagan. He’s a third-year law student at the University of Idaho and gave a TV interview about the comings and goings at the house where the kids were killed.

He admits that he’d given a nervous smile while talking about the crime. Some viewers took issue with that and made him a target. Soon, he moved from “target” to “suspect” and it was open season on the internet.

“People online have been ruthless,” Reagan said recently on “Banfield.” “Partially because of everything, of all the reports everyone sent in.”

Reagan has spoken with police and even volunteered his DNA, but when he didn’t hear back from the officers, he simply went to the station himself and gave police a sample.

As amateur investigators continue to dig deep into Reagan’s personal life, contacting his friends and family. He is now so concerned he carries a pistol for protection.

Amateur detectives have had some success before, and it has put wind in their sails.

During the Gabby Petito case, social media hashtags exploded with billions of views. Petito had documented her cross-country travels with her fiancé on social media, but when she went missing and he went silent, it was social media users who put many of the pieces together and gave police strong clues as to where to look.

Petito’s body was eventually found in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and after a manhunt for her fiancé, Brian Laundrie’s body was found in the woods near his parents’ home in Florida. He had shot himself.

Back in Moscow, with every day that the four murders go unsolved, the online investigative community is sure to grow, each member wanting to be the cybersleuth who unlocks the mystery and solves the crime

But at what cost to the professional investigators and to the public?

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