NEWS – “without comment”
The internet has turned us all into amateur detectives Amelia Tait – The Guardian Sun 25 Apr 2021
On social media, hunting for clues about other peoples’ lives is increasingly popular – and risky
They’ve broken up. I know they’ve broken up because I haven’t seen him on her Instagram Stories for weeks now, and she normally doesn’t go two days without zooming in on his moustache or snapping him with his hashtag pint. OK, there are still photos of him on her main feed – granted, sure, that could mean they’re still together. But there, look, see: she’s just posted her dinner. Steak tacos. He’s a vegetarian, remember? She never ate meat when she was with him.
Above is the shameful inner monologue of an amateur internet detective or, to put it less glamorously, me when I’m snooping into the (sort-of) private lives of my Instagram friends. This isn’t something I do deliberately, but rather a thought process that arises as my thumb undertakes its scrolling exercises at the end of the day. Psychologists recognise that humans are compelled to seek patterns; something inside us seems to love to hunt for clues, too. The popularity of mystery novels and true crime documentaries has long been a testament to our desire to play detective, but it’s the internet that’s transformed us all into amateur investigators.
From nosy neighbours on Next door to obsessives on gossip forums, anti-vaxxers on Facebook or Twitter’s moral arbiters, more and more people seem to spend their time online digging and deducing, hunting for clues about other people’s lives. The trend is almost as old as the world wide web itself – in 1995, an American theatre director named Tom Arriola started a website called Crime Scene, inviting members of the public to hunt through case documents in order to help solve a murder. Though Arriola merely posed as “Detective Ted Armstrong” and his story of a brutally murdered student was purely fictional, many early internet users enthusiastically believed the case was real. Ironically, amateur sleuthing exposed Arriola’s game: one woman who’d spent four (then expensive) hours on his website later called the real local police department he’d referenced to confirm the crime was fictitious.
Since then, online true crime tracking has become more commonplace: in 1999, the forum Web sleuths was launched to allow ordinary people to discuss cold cases. In 2013, Reddit users infamously tried to find the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing and incorrectly identified student Sunil Tripathi, bombarding his family with distressing phone calls. Yet while these stories are familiar (so much so that last year, New York magazine was able to publish a story titled, “7 Times Internet Detectives Got the Wrong Guy”), less attention is paid to how playing detective has seeped into the everyday experiences of internet users.
First: the fun stuff. Hunting for clues is a huge part of online celebrity culture; Taylor Swift can capitalise random letters in a social media post inviting fans to figure out the release date of her latest album. On a smaller scale, in mid-April I watched as subscribers of a popular YouTuber collated screenshots of her nails to figure out the upcoming shades in her new nail polish collection. This is innocuous fun – but amateur investigations can easily take a darker turn.
Fans involved in the #FreeBritney movement, for instance, have scrutinised Britney Spears’s Instagram for clues about her wellbeing, leading to strange dances in which posters write, “If you need help, wear yellow in your next video”, and then fly into a frenzy when Spears dons a yellow top. Then there was the 2016 case of YouTuber Marina Joyce: apparent bruises on her arms and a gun in the background of one of her videos led viewers to speculate she had been kidnapped by Islamic State (needless to say, she had not. Afterwards, her mother called the incident “something peculiar that the pair of us don’t even understand”.)
Conspiracy theories about celebrities are just that: conspiracy theories. The same behaviour that takes place on devoted fan accounts also happens in Facebook groups dedicated to anti-vaccination misinformation and 5G fears. Speak to any one of these theorists and they’ll tell you they’ve done their own research – to their credit, many have indeed spent hours wading through documents, memes and videos online. The internet has democratised detective work by allowing us greater access to information than ever: unfortunately, it’s become more difficult to tell what’s deliberately misleading or what’s real and what isn’t, and many of us don’t stop to question the source of apparent truths.
Whatever the online space, digital detectives are extrinsically rewarded in likes and comments. But something else is at play: online sleuthing seems to sate a deeper, natural curiosity about other people. You no longer need to be a superfan or true crime enthusiast to become enticed by a hunt for clues, especially as so many are dropped every day as people continue to post about their lives online. This phenomenon is now so commonplace that even those who don’t play detective may frequently find themselves watching from the side-lines.
Speculation is rife and seemingly unavoidable on social media, and it’s is not always easy to determine when digital detecting crosses the line – in the past, online sleuths have helped solve crimes and been thanked by law enforcement agencies for their efforts. But equally, lives have been ruined when posters point their finger at the wrong guy. I will never shake the haunting memory of a 62-year-old Twitch streamer sobbing in 2016 after a mob falsely accused him of being a paedophile: even now, I can’t bring myself to press play on the video again.
Many instances of online investigating are far less serious than this, but that doesn’t mean, really, that I should be pausing someone’s Instagram story to scrutinise their potential break-up. And yet it’s hard to see how I – or indeed, anyone – will stop: the internet has compounded our natural inclination to hunt for clues and rewards us with a buzz of pride when we piece the puzzle together (they had broken up! I knew it!). It has enticed us into thinking that we can figure something out without stopping to question whether it’s our job to figure it out in the first place. The habit will only become more ubiquitous the more that people share: as though the entire internet will slowly merge into one, giant overgrown detective agency.
Amelia Tait is a writer on tech and internet phenomena