Bryan Kohberger, right, appears at a hearing in Latah County District Court in Moscow, Idaho, on January 5, 2023. Credit - Ted S. Warren—Getty Images
The public’s fascination with true crime has led to endless docu-series, podcasts and social media theories dedicated to infamous crimes and killers. But when an investigation is unfolding in real time, this obsession—especially when internet sleuths get involved—can have grim consequences for real people.
Most recently, the murders of four University of Idaho students who were found stabbed to death in an off-campus townhouse in the college town of Moscow, Idaho, became a breeding ground for misinformation with conspiracy theorists and amateur “detectives” dissecting the case on social media. On TikTok, the hashtag “Idaho murders”—and its many iterations—have collected more than one billion views with thousands of users posting updates and asking for answers.
TikTok lives and videos discussing different theories on who could be responsible for the gruesome slayings have spanned hours on the platform, especially in the weeks before suspect Bryan Kohberger, 28, was arrested.
While high-profile cases can garner the attention necessary to bring new tips forward, they can also endanger innocent people and be the cause of much misinformation.
Fake theories, real people
Rebecca Scofield, a University of Idaho professor was accused by TikToker Ashley Guillard (@ashleyisinthebookoflife) of involvement in the Idaho murders in a series of videos posted online. Scofield says the lies spread about her have caused safety issues for her and family.
Guillard, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant who uses her abilities “to help solve mysteries,” told her more than 115,000 followers on the app that Scofield was romantically involved with one of the victims and worked with another individual to commit the murders in more than 50 videos starting around Nov. 17.
Scofield served Guillard with two cease-and-desist letters that were ignored, even after police had charged and arrested Kohberger on Dec. 30. Scofield has since filed a lawsuit, citing emotional distress from the public attention caused by Guillard.
Although users on Guillard’s most recent videos began telling her to stop posting videos about Scofield—saying things like “You’re still doing this?!” and “none of this happened”—previous posts where Guillard defamed Scofield have amassed at least 2.5 million likes, according to the lawsuit.
Guillard declined an interview and did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement to TIME, Scofield’s lawyer Wendy Olson said: “These untrue statements create safety issues for the Professor and her family. They also further compound the trauma that the families of the victims are experiencing and undermine law enforcement efforts to find the people responsible in order to provide answers to the families and the public.”
While Scofield has been the only one to take legal action, several others associated with the case have been accused online. Guillard also accused an ex-boyfriend of victim Kaylee Goncalves, of involvement in the crime. “He’s not only lost the love of his life,” his aunt told the New York Post, but “half of America” also believes he could be responsible for the murders.
A neighbor of the four University of Idaho students has also been wrongfully accused by social media users. He told NewsNation that people have been “ruthless” about getting information about his personal life. He added that he now carries a gun with him to get “that extra sense of security.”
“They’ve already contacted my friends asking questions about me,” he said. “And so who knows if someone’s gonna go so far as to try and confront me in person.”
A double-edged sword
David Schmid, an associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, says that public interest in high-profile cases can certainly bring forward attention and new information that can help investigators solve a case, but also comes with high costs.
In the Idaho murders case, Guillard is just one of many online personalities who has chosen to make accusations with little or no evidence.
On Dec. 9, weeks before Kohberger was arrested in connection with the murders, Moscow Police released a statement about the influx of information circulating online, saying they were “monitoring online activity” related to the case and were “aware of the large amount of rumors and misinformation being shared, as well as harassing and threatening behavior toward potentially involved parties.”
“Anyone engaging in threats or harassment whether in person, online or otherwise needs to understand that they could be subjecting themselves to criminal charges,” the department said in a Facebook post.
That is not to say all involvement in true crime is detrimental. Bystanders who were at nearby locations to Gabby Petito in the moments before her disappearance in September 2022 uploaded TikToks, photos and videos of their interactions with her and helped police narrow down their search efforts and ultimately find her body.
And in the Idaho case, the Moscow Police Department reports that they received more than 19,000 tips from the community as of Dec. 30 that were integral to arresting Bryan Kohberger, according to CBS News. They continue to ask for more tips related to the arrest of the primary suspect.
Schmid suggests that the best of internet sleuthing—deep diving into criminal cases online— is seen in projects like Serial, an investigative journalism podcast whose first season focused on the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing 18-year-old Hae Min Lee in 1999. With an average of more than 2 million listeners at the time of its release, Serial’s popularity undoubtedly played a role in Syed’s eventual release last October.
Citizen sleuthing into true crime can have dangerous impacts though. Serial, for instance, was made by experienced journalists who took measures to fact-check and share information in a manner that minimizes harm. TikTokers and others on social media, however, often have little basis for their claims. Yet with TikTok’s more than 1 billion users, they are able to reach vast numbers of people.
“[The internet] has a tremendous impact in terms of allowing people who ordinarily wouldn’t have access to media influence in any way, shape or form to provide input,” Schmid tells TIME. “In some cases, that’s been a very good thing, but like everything else, it’s a mixed bag.”
Schmid warns that the mass amount of information people have access to on a day-to-day basis often generates misinformation on a scale that is difficult to contain once it’s out. And because there is a lack of trust in traditional arbiters of information like the press and authorities, citizens feel that they have an equal right to comment and investigate.
Schmid believes social media companies should be responsible for taking down false accusations and misinformation in cases like the University of Idaho murders. “Obviously, the scale of the problem is so big you’re never going to be able to eliminate it entirely. But I think in cases like the one you’re discussing, where the damage being done is so egregious, I think deplatforming is a very good response to that,” Schmid tells TIME.