Internet sleuths: More helpful or harmful?

Flowers and other items are displayed at a growing memorial in front of a campus entrance sign for the University of Idaho, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, in Moscow, Idaho. Four University of Idaho students were found dead on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, at a residence near campus. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

(NewsNation) — As news spread of the quadruple homicide in Moscow, Idaho, amateur internet sleuths began scouring social media looking for clues: Who did the victims follow on Instagram? When did they last comment on TikTok?

With the case unsolved, online speculation continues to run wild.

On TikTok, videos with the hashtag “IdahoMurders” have almost 215 million views. A subreddit dedicated to the case has over 43,000 members who analyze every new development.

A few days after the attack, video emerged of Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves at a food truck just hours before they were killed. Armchair detectives immediately homed in on a hooded man that can be seen in the footage, publicizing his name and digging into his social media accounts.

Police were flooded with questions about the man’s alibi, but that individual has since been cleared.

So far, actual investigators have collected 113 pieces of physical evidence.

And that’s the primary challenge facing amateur internet detectives: they’re working off incomplete information.

When NewsNation reported that Goncalves had suffered “more brutal” injuries than Mogen, experts warned against jumping to conclusions.

“We have to be careful that we don’t overinterpret the information,” former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary told NewsNation’s Ashleigh Banfield on Monday.

It’s possible Goncalves had more severe injuries because she was the target of the attack, but it’s also possible she put up the most resistance and suffered greater injuries that way, McCrary pointed out.

The former FBI profiler said it’s important “not to get tunnel vision” on a single hypothesis and said that multiple competing theories are often crucial to solving investigations.

In some cases, information crowdsourced online has been useful.

Just last year, amateur social media sleuths helped solve the Gabby Petito case.

After weeks of mystery, YouTubers Jenn and Kyle Bethune found video of a white van they caught on their camera during a trip to Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. The van matched the description of the one Petito and Brian Laundrie traveled in.

They gave the footage to the FBI and days later, authorities found Petito’s body near where the van had been spotted in the footage.

In another case that drew international attention, everyday internet sleuths helped bring convicted murderer Luka Magnotta to justice. The 2019 Netflix docuseries, “Don’t F**K with Cats,” celebrated the power of amateur detectives in the Magnotta case.

But the line between internet sleuthing and unwarranted harassment is razor thin. Professional investigators are bound by the law and prosecutors must prove their case in court. Armchair detectives have no such obligation and are often reckless in their rush to judgment.

In 2013, citizen detectives misidentified 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. Tripathi’s family, who had been looking for Sunil after he disappeared a month earlier, was inundated with phone calls and hateful messages. Tripathi was later found dead. Authorities determined that he had taken his own life.

Online attention can also add to the noise, burying investigators tasked with sifting through information. As of Monday, detectives have received more than 2,645 emailed tips, 2,770 phone tips and 1,084 digital media submissions related to the Idaho stabbings.

“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.”

More than three weeks after the four University of Idaho students were stabbed to death, police have yet to identify a suspect or find a murder weapon.

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