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Amateur websleuth groups: A rapidly evolving risk for police

Supervisors need to continually remind their officers about operational security, so all information stays in the hands of investigators

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One or more investigators should be appointed to join and monitor prominent websleuthing groups, based on proximity to the incident’s location and the size of the group.

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Amateur sleuthing has been around since the advent of the “penny dreadful” stories in the 19th century. However, with the growth of social media (and the significant platform it provides for open collaboration), this natural element of human curiosity has taken a turn into the investigation of violent crime. A quick Google Scholar search on this phenomenon yields a surprising result: Very little research exists. [1]

Law enforcement agencies have long relied on community member tips, and it’s not uncommon for police leaders to ask bystanders to submit cell phone or other video footage following major incidents. Theoretically, amateur websleuth groups are an extension of this “crowd-sourcing” of evidence collection.

Certainly, websleuthing can produce valuable leads that can aid the investigative process. But as websleuth groups become more aggressive and prone to conspiracy theories, they can also create chaos for law enforcement agencies, jeopardizing the integrity of investigations and reducing community member trust in the criminal justice system. Law enforcement personnel of all ranks must develop an awareness of how websleuthing can affect interactions and investigations and how they can manage the challenges associated with this evolving trend.

Where websleuths began

In recent years, society has witnessed a significant rise in websleuthing. [1] The phenomenon took hold during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, when private citizens began to form virtual “sleuthing” groups on Reddit to share and analyze digital media (i.e., videos and images) collected in real-time during the terrorist attack and the aftermath. We saw for the first time here that these virtual websleuthing groups often lean more toward digital vigilantism than citizen (amateur) journalism.

This dark side of websleuthing became further apparent during the missing person case involving Gabby Petito. This case had all the “juiciness” that amateur websleuths love (romance gone bad, a beautiful young woman, a suspicious fiancé, etc.). In fact this case may be the most important inflection point for the websleuthing phenomenon because it involved the release of empirically debatable police body camera footage. As a graduate student, I watched as websleuthing exploded on Facebook because of this case. Amateur websleuth groups analyzed the entire police interaction at the most minuscule level. Suddenly, the Moab City Police Department was under attack, which had significant and long-lasting implications, such as the resignation of the police chief, organizational-level scrutiny/investigation, multiple high-dollar lawsuits, and more. [2-4]

Websleuthing again took a dangerous turn toward digital vigilantism during the high-profile murder case involving four students at a student rental house at the University of Idaho on Nov. 13, 2022.

Social media websleuthing today

Before discussing the University of Idaho case, it is important to look further into websleuthing today.

As a researcher, I have silently observed the evolution of one amateur websleuth group in particular, which I will purposely not name. The group is just one of many on the social media platform, but it has an astounding 137,000 members as of Dec. 28, 2022. The group was created on Nov. 19, 2022. Activity statistics published by the platform indicate the group has only two people who administer or moderate the group. They are responsible for managing an ever-increasing number of new posts a day (10,000 in a 30-day period), including the tens of thousands of dialogue sub-posts. In one two-week period, the group published 4,591 unique opinion posts.

In the University of Idaho case, the four young adult victims were of the age where they were raised on social media. Along with their friends, the victims – Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Kernolde’s boyfriend, Ethan Chapin, 20 – have an extremely rich digital media presence on multiple social media platforms. This treasure trove of open-source evidence altered the dynamic and tone of the websleuthing group, as evidenced by the overwhelming amount of speculative dialogue.

Within the online group, members have self-identified how “outrageous” and toxic the group has become. For example, one member noted how many presumably innocent people have been accused and had speculative information (websleuth open-source evidence) placed on them. This has led to physical world reactions, such as one “scarlet-lettered” suspect providing his DNA to police in a voluntary attempt to clear his name.[5] Another individual, an associate professor and chair of the history department at the university, recently filed a lawsuit against a TikTok personality who attempts to solve crimes in her videos and has posted numerous TikTok videos accusing the professor of being responsible for the four students’ deaths.

As speculation continued to mount four weeks after the killings, local police warned, “Investigators have been monitoring online activity related to this ongoing and active case and are 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.”[6]

The virtual websleuthing morphed into a physical role when, on Nov. 13, 2022, a still-unidentified woman posed as a reporter for a student newspaper to attend a press conference held by the Moscow, Idaho police. She pressed officers about the progress of the investigation, including asking whether there was a possibility the killer is female. On December 30, police arrested a male graduate student; he was subsequently charged with the four killings.

Together, these cases show how websleuthing can create challenges for law enforcement. While some groups will turn up valuable information, agencies risk being inundated with speculative leads that need to be tracked down. As groups center on particular individuals as suspects or persons of interest, agencies may need to divert resources to ensure the individuals aren’t harassed. “We find ourselves not only tracking those rumors down and trying to quell them but also we see our tips that come in are geared more toward the rumor, not the facts that have been put out,” Captain Roger Lanier of the Moscow Police Department said. He added that the harassment of friends and family members “revictimizes folks who have already suffered this terrible trauma.” [7]

Finally, websleuths can cast doubt on the investigative process, pressuring leaders publicly and implying that investigators aren’t following the evidence. This not only can harm individual and agency reputations but, more importantly, could cause investigators to rush the process and potentially jeopardize the case.

Managing the chaos created by amateur websleuth groups

There is no denying that websleuthing is here to stay, and most likely, based on its evolutionary trajectory, will increase the number of issues and challenges for police to consider.

Police officers of all types need to be aware of this phenomenon, as each is presented with a unique set of challenges. Below, I list just a few challenges that have emerged since the University of Idaho murders. These factors should be considered when an agency is dealing with a high-profile case likely to attract websleuths, such as missing persons cases, murders, unusual crimes and incidents involving celebrities.

Patrol officers

Officers who are on patrol and who mingle with the general public need to remain hyper-focused on not commenting, even unofficially, about any high-profile case. This includes interactions that occur both on and off duty. Websleuths are out there and will engage individual officers in innocent conversations to elicit information, both in person and online. Officers have always needed to be careful about what they say regarding cases, but now such comments can go viral in seconds. When dealing with a high-profile case, police administrators should issue a written “gag order” preventing officers from speaking with anyone other than “need to know” personnel.

Police supervisors

Supervisors need to continually remind their officers about operational security, so all information stays in the hands of investigators. Also, supervisors should attempt to limit the scale and scope of officers used during an investigation. Decide early on who will be involved in the investigation and who will not; information compartmentalization is imperative.

Police Public Information Officers

Public Information Officers are in a uniquely difficult situation. They are the gatekeepers of publicly allowable information, and they have routine contact with unvetted people. While public information officers may not be able to prevent websleuths from attending press conferences, they can exercise discretion in the questions they take and the information they disseminate. Issuing written press releases can help because it allows for the information to be systematically reviewed and controlled. An alternative option is to take written questions from the press and then hold a press conference where written answers are read that have been vetted by police and prosecution.

When dealing with questions from the public or the press, it’s important for agency leaders to distinguish, when possible, between genuinely concerned community members and those who are driving a narrative to get “clicks” or other attention. This distinction is not always prominent, which underscores the need to prepare the PIO and any other speakers at press conferences so messaging stays rooted in fact and leaders are not inadvertently “baited” with questions intended to fan the flames of a fire set by websleuths.

Investigators

One or more investigators should be appointed to join and monitor prominent websleuthing groups, based on proximity to the incident’s location and the size of the group. The purpose behind this investigatory action is multifaceted:

  • Identify potentially leaked investigative information.
  • Identify information useful for furthering the investigation.
  • Identify significant rumors that will need to be addressed by the lead detective and public information team in a daily written briefing. The public information team should use this information to correct misinformation and speculative dialogue during press conferences.
  • Lastly, be prepared to receive an overwhelming amount of digital media type open-source evidence from the public.

Making the case for further research and police executive attention

The potential issues and solutions outlined above are really just the tip of the iceberg. Empirical research of websleuthing, amateur websleuthing groups and their influence on active investigations is nonexistent. It is imperative that criminal justice programs offer incentives for graduate students and researchers to conduct empirical research into this phenomenon so unforeseen and unknowable issues and obstacles can be identified, mapped and navigated.

Websleuthing and collaborative websleuthing groups will continue to present significant challenges to police investigating high-profile incidents (i.e., missing persons, murder and unusual crimes). Having accurate, timely and actionable intelligence-led information on hand will be imperative for police to manage the websleuthing trend.

References

1. Yardley E, Lynes AGT, Wilson D, Kelly E. (2018). What’s the deal with “websleuthing”? News media representations of amateur detectives in networked spaces. Crime, Media, Culture: 14(1),81–109.

2. Ruiz M. (11/2/22) Lead cop on Gabby Petito 911 call accused of domestic violence himself. FOX News.

3. Pierce S. (9/28/21) Moab police chief granted leave as investigation into Petito, Laundrie stop looms. The Salt Lake Tribune.

4. Keller A. (11/3/22) Gabby Petito’s Family Sues Moab Police for $100M, Says “Domestic Abuser” Cop Who Responded to Fateful Call Identified with Brian Laundrie. Law & Crime.

5. Steinbuch Y. (11/30/22) “Socially awkward” neighbor of slain Idaho students denies he’s the murderer. New York Post.

6. Ruiz M. (12/9/22) Idaho police warn of ‘criminal charges’ for web sleuths engaged in “harassing” amid “misinformation.” FOX News.

7. Impelli M. (12/23/22). Idaho Killings Spark Fight Between Teacher Accused in Murder and Web SleuthIdaho Killings Spark Fight Between Teacher Accused in Murder and Web Sleuth. Newsweek.

Ted Bremer is a senior accreditation consultant and policy writer for Lexipol. He retired in 2016 with over 25 years of experience in law enforcement and public safety. Ted was a founding partner of The Rodgers Group, which was acquired by Lexipol in 2021. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Central Florida pursuing a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice and Criminology. Ted’s research interests are focused on police culture, policy/accreditation and innovation through technology.

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