Design by Arunika Shee.

This past November, tragedy struck in the small town of Moscow, Idaho when four University of Idaho students were murdered in their off-campus home. Sadness and fear settled over the community and the country at large as law enforcement searched for answers in this bizarre and senseless case. A suspect wouldn’t be arrested for weeks, but in the meantime, it wasn’t just the police who were attempting to connect the dots. As the community grieved and the FBI searched for their culprit, TikTok jumpstarted its true crime engine, and the internet detectives hopped on the case — this time, perhaps, for the worst.

It’s not unusual for a case as shocking as this to gain significant news coverage and attention on social media. For a long time, true crime has had its own dedicated and oftentimes over-the-top corner of the internet. Notable cases like Gabby Petito, JonBenét Ramsey and others have earned their time in the spotlight from apps like TikTok and Instagram, and it is not always a bad thing. In some cases, time spent trending on social media has led to the actual solving of crimes, bringing justice to those who need it and honoring the lives of the victims. In some ways, this has been the case with the Idaho murders. Entire accounts have been made that are dedicated to sharing information about the victims, the lives they led and the love they left behind. However, remembering the victims has been just a sliver of the social media coverage of this case. The vast majority has been spearheaded by none other than the true crime junkies. To them, this case has just about everything they need to make some jaw-dropping, nail-biting, lucrative content.

Curiosity is natural, especially with a case as jarring and gruesome as this. There is a difference, however, between theorizing in a casual, private manner and mindlessly pointing fingers at innocent individuals on a public social media account, one that true crime content creators have utterly failed at distinguishing in the case of the Idaho murders. Unqualified social media sleuths have continuously dished out absurd, harmful theories for views and likes, with no regard for how their words may affect the real people who are grieving this horrific tragedy, nor for how they could affect the integrity of an ongoing investigation. The combination of shock and grief, coupled with the fact that police have been reluctant to share information with the public as the investigation continues, has made for the perfect storm — one that has placed a megaphone in the hands of content creators whose motives may not be so pure.

It is here where the problems started. True crime content creators wasted no time, jumping straight into the deep end and sharing daily “updates” on the case, updates that quickly turned into a web of misinformation and crazy conspiracy theories — none of which were even close to the truth. Only days had passed since the murders, and suddenly the internet was sure it was a mysterious man in line at a food truck with some of the victims who had committed this heinous crime. Days later, it was one of the victim’s ex-boyfriends who took the spotlight, and the social media sleuths were once again sure they had their guy. More crazy theories continued to roll in, with one TikTok “psychic” claiming that a professor at the University of Idaho was guilty of the crime — an accusation that thankfully led to the creator getting sued. Perhaps most disturbing are the continued attacks directed at the two surviving roommates. Thousands of people continue to question their innocence (even though they’ve long been cleared by the police), a horrific accusation to make toward two young women who likely just experienced the greatest trauma of their lives. The victim blaming only got worse with the release of the arrest affidavit, in which it was revealed that one of the surviving roommates saw the killer in the early hours of the morning, before retreating into her bedroom. Questions exploded across social media: Why didn’t she call 911? Why didn’t she check on her other roommates? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been in a homicide situation and can pretty confidently say that I have no idea how I would react, so to question the actions of a young woman who is likely already overcome with guilt is inappropriate in just about every way.

But the TikTok detectives don’t care. They hide behind their screens and speak on their half-baked theories as if they are the truth, when — in reality — the only people who have the slightest idea what happened that night are the surviving roommates (who do not owe anyone but the police any kind of information), and the law enforcement professionals who are on the scene, collecting evidence and piecing together a picture of what took place that night. 

Yet, even as my “For You” page continues to be filled with case updates and bizarre, unsettling theories, I can’t say I’m surprised. After being fed a constant diet of true crime podcasts, Netflix series dedicated to serial killers and specials like “Dateline” and “60 Minutes,” it should not come as a shock that we become so easily fixated on cases of this nature. To a population of people that have been socialized to view true crime as a form of entertainment, it is disturbingly easy to watch something as gruesome as the Idaho murders unfold and still manage to disconnect it from reality entirely. Why? Because treating it like some kind of TV show is a lot easier to bear than trying to wrap your head around the real-life tragedy that has occurred. Not only that, but suspenseful, mysterious cases with bone-chilling updates and disturbing theories make for much more popular social media content than boring news reporting. At the end of the day, true crime TikTok creators profit from the madness, and there are plenty out there who — even though an arrest has been made and the case is very much in the hands of the justice system — are still trying to milk the Idaho murders for as much as they’re worth.

I hope that, by now, the vast majority of us can agree on one thing: It’s gone too far. The victims’ families have spoken out about the harassment friends and family have faced from the internet’s response, and begged the social media sleuths to stop. There have even been reports of people showing up to the house where the murders took place — purely out of curiosity — as if it’s some kind of tourist attraction and not an active crime scene.

Some desensitization is okay — necessary, even — especially when we live in a society that is so constantly overcome with tragedy. Disconnecting is sometimes what we need most. However, treating a quadruple homicide like it’s some kind of fictional plot with side characters and subplots is a disservice to the ones who matter most — to the friends of the victims, to their families and most of all to Xana Kernodle, Ethan Chapin, Kaylee Goncalves and Madison Mogen. They were real people with real lives that were stolen from them, and it is crucial that we do not forget this. How else are we supposed to get them the justice they deserve?

So, instead of handing the mic back over to the TikTok detectives and allowing them to continue to exploit this tragedy, let’s refocus on what matters: honoring the victims. The family of Xana Kernodle recently created a scholarship fund in her memory, and even small donations can go a long way. Likewise, the Sigma Chi Fraternity at University of Idaho — to which Ethan Chapin belonged — also created a scholarship in his memory. Showing your support toward these causes is just one of the many steps we can take to help have something good come from this tragedy.

Daily Arts Writer Rebecca Smith can be reached at rebash@umich.edu.