The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok and the perils of armchair detectives

Zara McDermott presents the BBC documentary

The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok,13-03-2024,Zara McDermott,in Moscow, Idaho,Summer Films,Alana McVerry
Zara McDermott presents BBC documentary The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok, which examines the impact of amateur internet sleuths. (BBC)

In The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok, Zara McDermott examines the negative impact that armchair detectives can have on an ongoing case.

The BBC documentary shares insight into how quickly conspiracy theories can spread on social media, and explores the devastating affect it can have on those falsely accused by internet sleuths who are trying to search for answers. It focuses on the 2022 killings of Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle, and Ethan Chapin, which shocked the nation.

Through the documentary, viewers are given a revealing look at internet sleuths and how easily conspiracy theories can grab hold of public consciousness.

The perils of armchair detectives

The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok,13-03-2024,Jonathan Lee Riches, Zara McDermott,Summer Films,Alana McVerry
Jonathan Lee Riches, who has covered the 2022 Idaho murders extensively on YouTube, met with Zara McDermott for the documentary, which examines how he approached sharing theories online. (BBC)

The term armchair detective refers to viewers at home who learn of a case, ongoing or cold, and who try to investigate themselves. It can be a source for good, for example it could result in something as simple as a person sharing information with police that they may not have remembered until that moment, which could be useful evidence. Police also often appeal to the public for information with cold cases.

Read more: Channel 4 viewers call Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax 'truly horrifying'

However, there are times when it can also be a bad thing, as is examined in The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok. The internet has allowed people to reach others on a huge scale, and it's getting bigger as time goes on particularly thanks to social media. Armchair detectives can share theories about a crime or even make wild accusations to the public with few repercussions.

When a story goes viral it can mean these are seen by larger and larger audiences, with conspiracy theories gaining momentum in a way it never would have without social media platforms. The more people click the more others might want to create content to ride the wave of popularity.

The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok,13-03-2024,Bullhorn Betty,doing webcast,Summer Films,Alana McVerry
Bullhorn Betty, an amateur internet sleuth who appears in the documentary. (BBC)

As is explored in The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok, this can lead to multiple people becoming the target of false accusations. This ranged from the driver of the food truck where the victims ate coming under speculation, as well as the former housemates of the victims, and an ex-boyfriend. This led to a pile-on from internet users that was so severe some of them were forced to remove themselves from social media entirely and go into hiding.

In the end the police investigation led to the arrest of Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old PHD student who has been indicted by a jury on five charges: four counts of first degree murder and one count of felony burglary. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. As is explained in the BBC documentary, armchair detectives were not aware of Kohberger before his arrest.

This isn't the first time the spread of conspiracy theories has had a negative impact on people who were falsely accused. Channel 4 recently released the documentary Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax which examined how false allegations made against parents and teachers saying they were part of a Satanic cult ruined lives.

Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax (Channel 4)
Channel 4 recently released Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax (pictured) which showed how the devastating impact of false allegations made online that went viral. (Channel 4)

The documentary also examined the dangers of misinformation and conspiracy theories, and how quickly they can spread on the internet and lead armchair detectives to reveal personal information of the people accused. The accusations were proven to be false, but the damage was done as shared by four women who told their story through actors to avoid further harm.

Even now, the public and internet sleuths alike are speculating over the whereabouts of Kate Middleton, with rumours getting more and more interest both online and in the media as time goes on. Her ongoing absence from the public eye since undergoing abdominal surgery in January has led to conspiracy theories ramping up to an alarming degree.

Read more: What we know about Kate Middleton's recovery from surgery

Of course, armchair detectives aren't always a bad thing. Netflix proved they can sometimes be a boon for police investigations in the documentary Don't F**k with Cats.

The documentary showed how amateur internet sleuths were able to identify Luka Magnotta as a man behind a video showing him suffocating two kittens. Magnotta was later arrested and imprisoned for life for the murder of Jun Lin in 2012.

The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok is available on BBC iPlayer now.

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