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#CYBERSLEUTHS: The Idaho Murders: an old problem or TikTok trend?

#CYBERSLEUTHS: The Idaho Murders: an old problem or TikTok trend?

At this point, I think we all agree that until we hear more from accused Idaho Murders suspect Bryan Kohberger, there’s not much to say about the November 2022 slayings of Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle, and Ethan Chapin. We know more than we probably should about the homicide scene, and we know a reasonable amount about who police say did the crime.

But details of the actual investigation remain under wraps, and Kohberger’s motivations (should you want to know those) are not publicly known. And until he takes a deal or heads to court, things will likely stay that way.

But the content beast must be fed. For she is hungry! And that’s why we’re getting #CYBERSLEUTHS: The Idaho Murders on Paramount+ next week, I suspect, because even its press release doesn’t promise insights into the case — and, friends, every true crime press release makes that promise.

What it does promise is “a dynamic group of amateur TikTok detectives, led by #chroniclesofolivia, in their attempt to separate rumor from fact while examining police statements and hunting for digital clues.” But, as anyone who followed the case knows, all that work from those interested bystanders isn’t what led police to the suspect, so…what’s the point of this three-part series?

The common true crime complaint of too much time wasted on red herrings and dead ends (especially on podcasts, am I right?) seems especially applicable here, as this is not a Charlie Kaufman-style story of wasted time, effort, and attempts to fill the yawning voids within oneself. This is presented as a hard news evaluation of viral amateur investigations, ground that’s so well trod its dangerously angled on both sides of the path.

Per the release, “CYBERSLEUTHS: THE IDAHO MURDERS ultimately raises the question: Do TikTok sleuths do more harm than good?” I’ll credit the release writers for not misusing “begs the question,” and I’ll also credit the PR team for keeping that question out of the release’s headline, thus avoiding a Betteridge’s Law violation. It’s not their fault that they had to come up with a way to promote this show, and we all gotta pay the bills.

But, folks, this is a conversation we’ve been having for over a decade. Dig if you will the Boston Marathon Bombing. We’re coming up on the 11th anniversary of this crime (April 15, 2013, to be exact). Headlines about how dreadfully online amateurs botched that case, and messed with innocent people’s lives, started dropping soon after. This is not a new phenomenon.

That isn’t to say that documentarians shouldn’t cover persistent societal issues, of course! After all, homicide, sexual assault, theft, etc etc etc are also not new. But suggesting, as this show does, that the Idaho case is somehow unique in how outside commentators glommed on to it, is a disservice to how not new this issue is. And before social media, there were other ways amateurs pointed their fingers at the wrong folks, from newspaper writers to actual, literal lynch mobs. The only thing that’s really changed since then are the platforms, as the local paper’s speculation was replaced by Reddit, then Facebook, then Twitter, then TikTok. (Somewhere, MySpace Tom is happy as hell he got out when he did.)

To that point: folks concerned about misinformation and its spread across social media get especially anxious every time social media companies announce layoffs, and it’s not (usually) because they’re worried about their stock prices. Instead, it’s because Trust and Safety teams are increasingly on the chopping block, as this headline from a year ago notes. If dumbasses and vigilantes have always existed, the it seems like its the platforms that need an extra level of scrutiny, and a harder look at how they allow false information and harassment to spread.

But that’s not what we have here, and unlike, say, the social-media driven Depp v. Heard, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who watches this will start reevaluating how they consume social content.

If I wasn’t clear enough (ha), I don’t think this series is worth your time. But all is not lost, in my opinion: I’m hopeful the team that made this keeps in touch with its amateur sources, as a docuseries about how these same amateur detectives comment on and approach the trial is something I would indeed want to see. Will they evaluate their role in things, or will they remain oblivious? Or, by the time the case gets into the courtroom (at present, a trail date has yet to be set), will they have moved on to the next big thing?

#CYBERSLEUTHS: The Idaho Murders premieres on the Paramount+ streaming service on Tuesday, February 6.

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