Amplifying or interfering? Social media’s impact on criminal investigations
Almost a year since Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, a case that saw unprecedented levels of social media attention, Dr Honor Doro Townshend asks what can we learn from the case?
The tragic circumstances that led to Nicola Bulley being found deceased, having drowned, are ones that most of us will never forget. Nicola was reported missing on 27 January 2023, and in the three weeks until her body was found, a modern-day media frenzy ensued, driven by social media postings. Understanding why this case captured so much attention is crucial to learning from this and, in retrospect, it is clear that several factors came into play.
Firstly, Nicola’s disappearance came less than two years after the murder of Sarah Everard, a case that sent shockwaves through communities nationwide. The amplification of societal fear resulting from such a horrific case cannot be underestimated, and Nicola’s disappearance sparked fears of a similar tragedy.
Another factor was the scarcity of information – numerous questions arose about Nicola’s disappearance, particularly based on the limited information released to the public. Furthermore, instances where the police shared seemingly irrelevant details, such as a press release mentioning Nicola’s alcohol consumption and aspects of her personal health, were viewed by many as victim blaming. These communication missteps and failures to engage effectively with the public created room for speculation and, at worst, the spread of misinformation.
Moreover, the demographics, characteristics and appearance of a missing person can significantly affect media coverage levels. This phenomenon, known as ‘the ideal victim hypothesis,’ suggests that certain groups, specifically white, middle class, ‘attractive’ women, garner disproportionate media attention when reported missing or as victims of crime, compared to other demographics.
An additional factor is our society’s increased consumption of true crime content, with Netflix’s Top 10 featuring a true crime documentary nearly 50 per cent of the time. These offerings include well-received documentaries where viewers witness ‘armchair detectives’ positively impacting crime-solving efforts, as seen in ‘Don’t F*ck With Cats’ (2019). Unlike some, and speaking as someone who participates in such documentaries, I see their value. This content can serve to inform the public, and while we may be seeing an increase in the consumption of this material currently, it would be false to say that this fascination with criminal behaviour is a modern occurrence – merely the format has changed.
The issue, however, arises with the potential ensuing disruption – when the interest and amplification instead become problematic and intrusive. While often well intentioned, armchair detectives can unintentionally impede active criminal investigations. The worst-case scenario, as seen during Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, involves individuals actively disrupting potential crime scenes, risking the integrity of forensic evidence vital to investigations or future convictions.
Another significant challenge posed by social media in criminal investigations is the potential spread of misinformation. As social media users, it is vital to remember that the information on these platforms may not be fact checked, could be opinionated or might lack crucial details. Inaccurate information can lead to missed leads or inaccurate reports, potentially jeopardising active cases.
However, despite what some of the coverage might suggest, it is my opinion that the impact of social media is not entirely negative. It can be instrumental in amplifying cases, a function traditionally served by print and television media. But unlike these mediums, social media offers instant visibility, potentially aiding in raising awareness and identifying new leads or information.
Amplification of a case can also maintain, what is sometimes, a healthy pressure on law enforcement efforts. While there are valid critiques regarding the added social pressure on the police in active investigations, such as the potential for rushed procedures in response to the public’s demand for answers, a police force held accountable to informed citizens can, I believe, only be beneficial.
Ultimately, we now have a society more aware and informed (though admittedly, not always accurately) about criminal investigations, a society who have seen the positive impact of widespread case amplification online. However, this is also a society who are, understandably, while sometimes disproportionately, fearful of certain types of crimes, and who are living in a world within which we can share information instantly and without substantiation. With all these elements combined, it is really no surprise that Nicola Bulley’s disappearance resonated so strongly online, and it is also no surprise that the result was not always positive.
So, for those of us who engage with social media, the key lesson to learn is one of verification and accuracy. Consistent, reliable fact checking should be our collective responsibility, as well as ensuring that we amplify all cases in need, not just those fitting specific demographic profiles. While our intentions may be to assist, it is also important to recognise that physical interference invariably harms an investigation. If our aim is to help loved ones find answers or achieve justice, such actions are often counterproductive. A year since Nicola Bulley’s case unfolded, it is clear that for all parties, the learning journey is far from over.
Dr Honor Doro Townshend is a researcher and lecturer in criminology at Royal Docks School of Business and Law, University of East London