Investigators have not yet named a suspect in the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students who were found dead in a home near the campus last month. But would-be armchair detectives and internet sleuths have come to a few conclusions of their own, often based on guesswork and hearsay.
Online forums with thousands of members are full of people speculating about possible motives, insulting friends and acquaintances of the victims and even openly labeling some people as the killers.
“People go down these rabbit holes and they hyper-focus on one person and attack that individual,” said Tauna Davis, an Idaho State Police trooper who helps the Moscow Police Department handle the flow of media interview requests. “You are attacking a most likely innocent person.”
Relatively few details have been released about the murders that have left the small college town in shock and mourning for Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Kana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin. The four were friends and all were members of the university’s Greek system.
The murders have attracted worldwide attention, especially among true crime buffs. That’s likely because so few facts are known about the incident, said Julie Wiest, a sociology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and an expert on extreme media violence.
“Usually by now there are more facts that have been released by law enforcement, so I could see people digging and almost grasping at straws,” Wiest said. “It’s not very typical, except at a high level. cold cases where you can see people digging that way.’
Many of the online sleuths are probably well-intentioned, he said, perhaps driven by a desire to avoid similar crimes, a hope for justice or just a bit of fame among true-crime fans.
But they may not realize the damage wild speculation can cause, and today’s theories will likely still exist online years from now, forever linking innocent people to a heinous crime.
“People should perhaps consider that what they post is in writing forever, and perhaps also remember that there are real people here. The families of the victims should also be considered,” Wiest said. “You can make assumptions in your living room talking to friends, but when you put it on the Internet, even if it’s just a one-off thought that occurred to you. head — it’s there now and it’s not going away.”
The victims and their friends are young enough that much of their lives have been documented online, providing plenty of material for web explorers like mine. Photos and rumors that were once shared with a small circle are now shared widely, leading to harassment.
Moscow Police Department Capt. Roger Lanier provided an update Wednesday on the fatal stabbing of four University of Idaho students and asked anyone with tips to call 208-883-7180.
Some sorcerers believed that a photo of a person on a successful hunt indicates evil tendencies. They probably didn’t know that hunting was a common pastime for many Idaho families, and that fixed knives were a staple tool for anyone who dressed wild game.
Others pursued rumors posted on a completely anonymous online message board, best known as a source of hoaxes, scandals and misinformation. Those news stories criticized and published personal information about various people in the Moscow area, suggesting that they should be suspects.
Some have even studied the obituaries of other University of Idaho students who have died in the past few years in an attempt to connect them to the homicide victims, though none of the deaths were the result of foul play. At least one grieving family member took to the Internet to ask people to stop trying to connect her child’s death to the case and to respect the family’s privacy.
All rumors and wild speculations aside, a mob investigation might do some good.
“More heads are better than one, and it’s possible that people on the Internet know something that the police don’t,” said Vanderbilt University law professor Christopher Slobogin.
Police welcome tips, but urge people to focus on information released by the police department, rather than guesswork and hearsay. Last week, they asked for the public’s help in locating a white sedan seen during the killings in the area.
Internet forums and community members have sprung into action, and Moscow police announced Thursday that investigators are now sorting through 22,000 registered 2011-2013 Hyundai Elantras that match their search criteria. The department thanked tipsters for their help in providing additional information about the vehicle.
Slobogin noted that it is the job of law enforcement agencies to follow up on those instructions.
“We don’t want vigilantes out there trying to take the law into their own hands,” he said.
Robbie Johnson, a spokesman for the Moscow Police Department, said the attention and speculation had been “terrifying” for the people at the center of it.
“None of these people did anything wrong. Nothing,” he said. “We all have our LinkedIn or Facebook pages and it can really happen to anyone involved in any type of crime. I have great sympathy for them.”
Johnson declined to talk about the nature of the harassment for fear of fanning the flames.
“Speculations, rumors, accusations. anything you put on that fire will make it burn more, so I don’t want to add more to it,” he said.
The police department announced earlier this month that it would file harassment charges if necessary.
In a video message, Capt. Roger Lanier said some people in the community have received death threats and the result has been resuscitating people with “terrible trauma.”
He added that the rumors and harassment can be discouraging, but investigators are driven to solve the case.
“We’re making progress every day, every hour,” Johnson said, “and it makes you feel confident and go in knowing that the investigation is going somewhere.”