The Serial podcast‘s first season has undoubtedly inspired a lot of people to take more of an interest in true crime and wrongful convictions, which is probably good. But here’s a possible downside to that surge in interest I’ve come across: there are a lot more people thinking they can solve crimes over the internet.
I’m not necessarily against civilian investigation of crimes. That’s certainly a function of journalism. I’ve written a little about Bob Ruff’s Truth & Justice podcast, and it’s basically journalism by any other name, even if I do think he’s a little too quick to jump to conclusions. But when investigations are crowdsourced on the internet bad things can happen.
One famous example was when Reddit users decided to identify the Boston Marathon bombers.
Another example came up in the news today. Back in December 2014 a young woman named Jessica Chambers was murdered late one night, in a particularly bizarre fashion. Just today the police announced they have a suspect, a man named Quinton Tellis. He’s currently in jail on charges related to the killing another woman last year.
The thing is, the investigation of Chamber’s murder was a minor internet sensation, and it had real ramifications for people who probably had nothing to do with Chamber’s death. You can read about the whole situation in this BuzzFeed article… and notice that Tellis isn’t even mentioned.
Why does internet investigation go wrong so often? I’ve got a few theories.
- Internet investigation promotes a mob mentality, which amplifies prejudices.
- Internet investigators probably don’t have all the facts that the police do.
- Internet investigators are greatly influenced by pop culture portrayals of crime.
- Internet investigators are greatly invested in simple maxims they “know” are true, like “Usually the boyfriend did it.” (True, except for all those times the boyfriend didn’t do it!)
I like true crime as much as the next person, probably more. But I also hope that the people listening to these shows realize that they don’t have the expertise to solve crimes by themselves.