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Things You Should Know But Don’t: Digital Detectives Part 1

Posted January 3, 2022

True crime as a genre has been captivating audiences for the better part of the last decade. While true crime started gaining traction around the 1980s (the same time serial killings reached their peak in the US), it became a more household term with the release of popular documentaries and podcasts such as Making a Murderer or Serial in the mid-2010s. People love true crime and there’s no shortage of shows to sate their desire for it. Even casual fans know the most popular cases: Jeffrey Dahmer, Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, The Zodiac Killer, just to name a few. A lot of the high-profile cases are older, with killings that took place decades ago. It’s easy to be detached from those. But what about the smaller, more obscure cases? What about the more recent serial murders, or even the ongoing ones?

It seems that people don’t tune out from true crime even when it’s unfolding in front of us. In fact, if the recent and heartbreaking murder of Gabby Petito is proof of anything, it’s that people want to be more involved than ever with true crime. During the entirety of the investigation and ensuing manhunt, social media and news was fraught with updates, theories, and speculation on both the victim and the perpetrator.

Petito’s homicide is not the first that has transfixed media, and it likely won’t be the last. With the rise of the internet, it has become increasingly easy for people to gather and discuss a variety of mysteries from analyzing celebrity social media posts to uncovering secrets (a la the #FreeBritney movement) or even trying to solve murders. In fact, the web forum Webslueths was founded in 1999 with the explicit purpose of allowing ordinary citizens to discuss cold cases. This method is often referred to as “crowdsourced investigations”, meaning many people unassociated with police agencies get together and have a common goal of finding clues, sharing them, and hopefully solving the case at hand. This kind of digital sleuthing can take place on all sorts of platforms, from forums to social media sites such as TikTok or Reddit. There is even a site provided by the Murder Accountability Project that makes FBI data on homicides accessible to anyone.

It’s an unconventional method of investigation, certainly, but the weirdest part? It’s worked. These digital detectives have, in the past, helped the police in a myriad of ways. In one case, a podcast listener helped connect the police to a tip that later identified one of the victims in a serial murder case. In another, a podcast also helped lead to the arrest of a murderer by finding new witnesses that the police had not previously interviewed during their initial investigation. In still another, Reddit users came together to help someone solve a hit-and-run case. There is merit to crowdsourced investigations though they also have a fair share of cases that have fallen short. However, the successes are certainly worth it to the victims of these crimes that might otherwise go unsolved. This new age of detectives has given the hopeless something to hope for again. If the internet can help them solve their case, that is indeed a wonderful thing, but what about when they get it wrong?

Stay tuned for our upcoming part two that explores the darker side of crowdsourced investigations.

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