The amateur detectives doing more harm than good in the search for Jay Slater

Jay Slater, who was last seen walking "alone and fast" on Monday morning in Tenerife
Jay, 19, was last seen on Monday morning after a party on the island - Solarpix

It’s an age-old movie trope: the tale of the rogue private detective whose maverick tactics see the rescue of a victim or the closing of a case. In real life, however, vigilante investigators rarely find so much success as this.

At least five Brits have flown out to Tenerife on their own dime to aid in the search for missing teenager Jay Slater, who was last seen walking “alone and fast” last Monday morning. The apprentice bricklayer, from Lancashire, is believed to have been attempting a 10-hour trek from a stranger’s Airbnb towards his friends who were staying in the south of the island.

Jay’s phone last pinged in the mountainous rural area of Masca, not long after he had called a friend to say that he was lost, a detail which has caused rumours to abound online.

Some say that the young man has been kidnapped and is being held ransom – others believe that he has fallen prey to an attack by another British teenager, in revenge for a criminal case involving Jay heard at Preston Crown Court last year.

Of the five unrelated Britons who’ve made the journey to the Spanish island in search of Jay, a handful are sharing clips of the search efforts online, says Paul Arnott, 29, who paid £400 for a flight from Fort William to Tenerife on Saturday. Arnott himself has a TikTok page – called “Down the Rapids” – with some 153,000 followers, where he shares updates on his own escapades.

TikTok detectives Andrew Knight and Paul Arnott have paid significant sums to fly to Tenerife
TikTok detectives Andrew Knight and Paul Arnott have paid significant sums to fly to Tenerife - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

Yet while “a lot of people play on the fact it’s people with social media profiles coming out here to search, we’re only here because we care about Jay,” says Arnott. This is not his first rodeo: the amateur mountaineer and adventurer took part in the search for father and son Tom and Richie Parry, who were eventually found dead after going missing in the Scottish Highlands last month.

Though local police have refused help from British forces and are being tight-lipped with the press, Arnott claims that mountain rescue teams have welcomed his help. The force, he claims, “has been really good with me, talking to me and showing me areas where I can get involved with the search given my experience,” he says.

Amateur search parties are common in these cases, says Arnott, and he expects “more and more Brits” to turn out in the coming days. He himself flew to Tenerife after seeing an appeal for help online, though he can’t remember “whether that was made by [Jay’s] family or by someone else”.

“I personally spend all my time in the mountains and I’m very interested in survival and exploring, so this is something that could happen to me one day and I say that you should treat people how you want to be treated,” Arnott says. “At the end of the day, the boy’s lost.”

Family and friends of Jay Slater have released this picture, a possible sighting of him
Family and friends of Jay have released this picture, a possible sighting of the apprentice bricklayer from Lancashire

However altruistic his motives may be, however, Arnott still feels the need to post his efforts on TikTok. And others on the video-sharing platform are also using Jay’s disappearance to generate content.

One TikTokker, who shares “60-second true crime” stories on her 238,000-follower TikTok page, has posted videos about the teenager’s disappearance that have garnered nearly four million views and tens of thousands of likes. Clips discussing this ongoing case sit alongside videos about the murder of 17-year-old Victoria Hall in Suffolk in 1999, as well as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007.

The wide discussion of Jay’s disappearance online is strikingly similar to rumours spread amidst the disappearance of Nicola Bulley, 45, who was found dead after a three-week police investigation in February last year. Then as now, amateur sleuths became fixated on the location of Bulley’s phone and other clues to her whereabouts, such as her typical dog walking route and emails sent to her manager from her phone.

Detectives investigating Bulley’s disappearance said at the time that they were “inundated with false information, accusations and rumours”, which were “distracting” them from their work. Former Metropolitan Police DCI Simon Harding warned that such interference would surely happen again in another case “because true crime is so popular”.

Search teams looking for the Jay Slater in Tenerife
TikTok detective Paul Arnott has said that mountain rescue teams have welcomed his presence in Tenerife - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

Far from supporting such endeavours, mountaineer Paul Arnott finds speculation in both cases “sick and disgusting”.

“There is so much trolling and fake stories, and there are already conspiracy theories being spread,” says Arnott, who has received comments that his own searches are “pointless”.

“People sit at home and want to play detective based on random stories they hear,” he says. “It must be horrible for the family and all involved in this. After Jay is found, it’s for the police to work out what happened, and for now people need to stop and focus on the search.”

What is it that drives influencers with platforms big and small to “play detective”? While there are certainly those, such as Arnott, who genuinely want to help, some people who engage in armchair sleuthing are psychologically much the same as any tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist, says Sander van der Linden, the director of Cambridge University’s Social Decision-Making Lab.

“We know that some people who get caught up in these things are more extreme in their thinking in general,” says Van der Linden. “Having low trust in other people, high levels of paranoia and scoring higher in some measures of narcissism, as well as absorbing most of their news from social media, makes people more vulnerable to believing conspiracies shared online.”

There is also the draw of social media notoriety, says the professor. “It’s harder to excuse this behaviour because often those people know that they’re spreading inaccurate information or speculation and are doing so for clicks,” he claims.

“People who become influencers are generally ordinary people who happen to have a charming personality and tend to be good at explaining complex things to people in a way that seems simple or intuitive.”

“They also pay close attention to what’s getting engagement on their accounts and realise that when they say shocking things about people who have gone missing, they get more attention and engagement and therefore their profile grows.

“I don’t think these people are necessarily narcissistic psychopaths, but this unusual content does get more traction and so they make more of it, and it ends up pushing people down rabbit holes.”

Individuals who actually join the search for missing people, despite police warnings, often have a profile similar to people prone to radicalisation, Van der Linden adds.

“Often that’s people who have a lot of time on their hands, perhaps who’ve been fired from a job or who have flunked out of education, who feel that they don’t have a purpose and are on a quest for significance,” he says. “Taking up a mission like this does give people a sense of control in a very chaotic world, and a sense of being able to restore things that have gone wrong.”

Sander van der Linden: 'Taking up a mission like this does give people a sense of control'
Sander van der Linden: 'Taking up a mission like this does give people a sense of control' - Omayhall

As Van der Linden points out, there are times where internet sleuths make invaluable contributions. Firms that specialise in open-source intelligence, such as Bellingcat, the website that identified the Russian spies who carried out the novichok poisonings in Salisbury in 2018, “are a good example of community-based intelligence,” he says, but they “have extensive training as well as editorial processes and professional oversight”.

More amateur sleuths often do more harm than good, he says, but it isn’t all their fault. “When the police and other official sources don’t proactively share as much information as they can in such cases, this feeds into what we call information voids,” says van der Linden. “When someone goes missing and there’s poor communication around the case, people’s anxiety makes them want to fill in the gaps themselves.”

For now, Tenerife mountain rescue teams haven’t experienced interference from TikTok true crime obsessives, but it is only a matter of time, says Paul Arnott.

“At the end of the day, mountain rescue teams can identify people who say they want to help but are actually just nosey,” Arnott says. “If people turn up in shorts and T-shirts and with flip-flops on, then they’ll turn them away. It always happens, especially when these cases blow up online.”