01 Nov Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: True Crime isn’t Always True Justice – The Unintended Consequences of Pop Culture Portrayals of Citizen-Sleuthing and OSINT
[Sarah Zarmsky is an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre with a focus on the intersections between new and emerging technologies, human rights, and international criminal law. She was also a Visiting Scholar at the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.]
[Franka Pues is a PhD Candidate at King’s College London in International Criminal Law with a particular focus on digital evidence. She is a Teaching Fellow at University College London and a Visiting Researcher at the DynamInt Project, Humboldt University Berlin.]
That reality is more fascinating than fiction has been the appeal of true crime to audiences for decades. As a result of the rise of social media, a new genre of investigative work is capturing that audience and fostering a faster, more connected, and more participatory culture of crime-solving frequently referred to as ‘citizen-sleuthing’ or ‘digilantism’. This method of crime-solving has been featured in recent Netflix documentaries, such as Don’t F**k With Cats (2019) and The Tinder Swindler (2022), and portrayed in films like Searching (2018). Geolocation has grown to immense popularity on TikTok, with accounts dedicated to finding obscure places in photos and videos on Google Maps reaching over 2.5 million followers.
Citizen-sleuthing bears much similarity to what journalism, legal, and human rights communities know as ‘open source investigations’, where individuals gather and analyse data publicly available online to produce intelligence (‘OSINT’) that can then be reported on or used for accountability purposes. Some of the methods, including discovery (collecting information from online sources), geolocation (estimating where something happened), and chronolocation (estimating when something happened), are exactly the same. However, arguably the most important difference is the ‘citizen’ aspect of ‘citizen-sleuthing’–while these ‘investigations’ can be successful and aid law enforcement in finding serial killers and the like, they also are not without risks, as citizen sleuths are not professional open source investigators who adhere to a standardised code of conduct.
This blog post first discusses the potential benefits of this ‘true-crimeification’ of OSINT, including the empowerment of voices that may not otherwise be heard and the encouragement of documentation of future crimes. Situating itself within an international law and human rights context, it will then explore the risks, focusing on both the potential harm to victims of crimes (such as retraumatization, invasion of privacy, and unfulfilled promises of justice) and to the accused (such as infringements upon fair trial rights and the dangers of misinformation).
The Representation of OSINT in Pop Culture & Potential Benefits
The portrayal of OSINT in documentary films and series encourages viewers to get involved in the detection or investigation of crime, allowing them to feel part of an online community committed to making a difference, and promotes the idea that their actions have the power to effect change. Stories like Don’t F**k with Cats and The Tinder Swindler demonstrate the overwhelming response from individuals willing to spend time helping to stop a killer from murdering more kittens and people, or a dangerous con artist from abusing more women. What has created this widespread engagement and enthusiasm for OSINT within true crime documentaries or on viral social media accounts is that it is so easily accessible.
There have been some other cases where citizen sleuths have successfully aided law enforcement and brought perpetrators to justice. One example pertains to the 2021 case concerning the murder of Gabby Petito (which inspired three documentary films), where two Youtubers accidentally filmed the van she was in before she went missing and then posted a video of their review and geolocation of the footage, tipping off law authorities. Shortly after the video went online, the FBI announced that Petito’s body had been found in the same area. Even more recently, citizen sleuths aided law enforcement in identifying hundreds of suspects allegedly involved with the January 6th attack on the US Capitol. It could be argued that one benefit of open source methods becoming more popular in films and on social media is that more people become aware of such tools and the importance of documenting and sharing footage of potential crimes. Though we cannot be certain of a causal link, it could reasonably be hypothesised that the growing prevalence of OSINT in the media has led to the rise of more citizen sleuths that were able to assist in the cases mentioned above. This can be especially helpful in the context of international law and human rights, where effective citizen documentation of war crimes can be extremely helpful for accountability purposes. Additionally, this can lead to increased representation in international legal procedures of those who have historically been barred from participating in evidence collection, disclosure and analysis.
On another note, ‘citizen-sleuthing’ can be especially helpful in raising awareness about cases where there may have been wrongful convictions. This has occurred through popular podcasts like Serial, where an investigation carried out by independent citizen sleuths rose to fame and eventually led a court to reconsider its murder conviction. As argued by Jones, these types of ‘narratives […] emphasise justice for the wrongfully convicted and encourage a form of citizen investigation in order to right that wrong’. Of course, the conclusions of citizen sleuths should not (always) trump those of professional investigators and criminal courts, but they can provide a valuable way for the public to engage with a case where there may have been an injustice and pressure law enforcement to reconsider their decisions. It is also important to recognize that the Serial podcast and other true crime series where convictions have been questioned such as Netflix’s Making a Murderer have not relied heavily on OSINT–for instance, arguably the biggest piece of evidence revealed in the Serial podcast was that of an alibi witness for the accused. So, while there may still be an opportunity for ‘digilantes’ to right wrongs, it is possible that the unique nature of online investigations carries more risks than potential benefits. These risks will be discussed in the following section.
More Harm Than Good? Issues With the ‘True-Crimeification’ of OSINT
Though documentaries where citizen sleuths help to catch a violent killer and bring justice for victims (such as Don’t F**k With Cats) can be compelling and inspiring stories, it is important to remember that criminal trials and due process exist for a reason. It is possible even for professional open source investigators to make mistakes, and when investigations are carried out by those without any training, the risk of error is even greater. However, these concerns are rarely discussed in the true crime series or films discussed in this piece, where instead online investigations are portrayed as quick-paced, very accurate, and even easy. This section will discuss some of the potential harms to both victims and those accused of crimes as a result of OSINT’s portrayal in popular culture.
Harms to Victims
To begin, it is possible that the ‘true-crimeification’ of open source investigations and the rise of citizen-sleuthing can do more harm than good for victims. This is because by fostering a culture of participation, it encourages users to engage in digital investigations themselves and can lead to both an invasion of privacy and increased risk of re-traumatisation, along with unfulfilled promises of justice.
With regard to the former, there is an increased risk of re-traumatisation and invasion of privacy that comes with the sharing of private and sensitive information, resulting in a violation of personal boundaries of the victims and their loved ones. The way in which people engage with true crime and OSINT occurs outside the usual parameters of who is involved and how they are involved in more traditional investigations, anchored in some form of official proceedings. In the case of true crime, individuals engage with the content as fans, as an audience fascinated by a crime that has gained traction online. This can lead to victims of the crime and their families rising to fame with or without their consent, with their personal information shared on television and the internet for all to see. For example, in the case of the murders of four students at the University of Idaho in 2022, the collection and sharing of information by citizen sleuths surpassed what was necessary to understand the crime and provide sufficient evidence for the cases, causing serious distress to the families of the victims. The friends of the victims were doxxed, and were sometimes even labelled as ‘murderers’ with no real evidence.
This information is shared in an unregulated sphere, outside of the necessary legal context. It forces victims, their relatives, and wrongly-accused individuals to confront deeply traumatising events outside of the expected legal channels without any redress or support to help protect them. This infringement on privacy sometimes even extends beyond the public sharing and discussing of content, and has led to individuals reaching out to victims, relatives, and responsible police units directly, harassing them for further information and input. These issues arise in the case of citizen sleuthing, which is idealised in documentaries that portray it, partially because amateur ‘digilantes’ are not bound to any ethical frameworks or protocols. In the human rights sphere, these guidelines exist but are still far from uniform, though those who are professionally trained or affiliated with an organisation will at least (hopefully) be more mindful of best practices for carrying out open source research as opposed to online citizen sleuths. Yet, this point is seldom raised in documentaries sensationalising the citizen sleuth culture, and can come at the expense of victims and those close to them.
In addition, the inflammatory discourse waged online, which often transcends forums and reaches traditional media, feeds into the active re-traumatisation of victims and their relatives. It turns traumatic lived experiences into entertainment that can glorify killers and exploit victims, enhanced by the perceived gamification of the evidence hunt through amateur online investigations. This sensationalization of the crimes and the idea that online sleuthing is riveting and fun can degrade victims and those close to them, and make the experience of an already tragic incident even worse.
In addition to the fear of online exposure of personal information through doxxing, invasion of privacy, and re-traumatisation through the sharing of narratives, the ‘true-crimeification’ of online investigations can lead to an unfulfilled promise of justice to victims. Promises of justice that come from within the online community (rather than the legal community) can give victims and relatives hope and a sense of visibility through increased and sustained engagement with a case and the use of ‘justice’ language. While giving people hope can sometimes be positive, it can do more harm than good when those hopes are later let down. This can often be the case when the information gathered by citizen sleuths or discussed in a documentary cannot actually meet legal evidentiary standards. Even with concrete guidelines in place for professional open source investigators, it is inherently difficult to ensure the admissibility and appropriate use of open source evidence. For example, scholars have engaged with such evidentiary challenges in an international criminal law context and raised questions of how to reliably verify and authenticate the submitted evidence and establish its integrity. However, these challenges are even more pronounced when amateurs are acting with the intention of self-obtained justice. The reality in legal proceedings is that there are stringent procedural standards which common actors may fail to meet without proper training. Thus, the notion that a third party (in this case, true crime fans) may actively ‘bring about’ justice is not as simple as it is sometimes advertised or portrayed, and those that feel the disappointment from this will be already vulnerable victims and their families.
Harms to the Accused
In addition, the ‘true-crimeification’ of OSINT has the potential to harm those accused of crimes, both inside and outside the courtroom context. It is important to recognize that unlike their portrayal in documentaries which are frequently accompanied by up-beat music and images of fast-changing computer screens, open source investigations take a considerable amount of time and effort to produce quality work, which is the opposite of the message that true crime fans receive through popular culture. When investigations are carried out by citizen-sleuths, though they may be well-intended, there can be a number of challenges that arise including the possibility of obstructing professional investigations that can, in the extreme case, potentially lead to wrongful convictions, and harms to the rights of the accused and their personal safety. First, sometimes citizen-sleuthing can interfere and hinder investigations by authorities. This occurred in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, in which civilian sleuths on Reddit and Facebook fueled ‘online witch hunts’ for innocent individuals, some of which were minors. These amateur investigations led to a massive influx of misinformation online, which the FBI then had to spend time that could have been used for its own investigation monitoring and curbing potentially dangerous speculation.
Though to public knowledge, there has not yet been a case where citizen-sleuthing or amateur open source investigations have directly contributed to a wrongful conviction, it is easy to foresee how this could be an issue as the phenomenon continues to grow. For instance, even the use of open source evidence resulting from professional open source researchers can have implications on the right to a fair trial due to potential biases that can affect the investigation or the interpretation of such evidence. As argued by Zarmsky and Mionki, open source evidence can also place defence teams at a disadvantage, who may not have the same resources as the prosecution (particularly at the ICC) to be able to effectively query the evidence. It is therefore foreseeable that if open source evidence found and analysed by those without professional experience or qualifications makes it to the consideration of law enforcement or to a courtroom, similar effects could be expected, if not exacerbated.
Moreover, aside from its ability to harm the legal rights of the accused, amateur sleuthing can also subject innocent individuals and their families to verbal abuse and even physical danger. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, a university student was wrongly accused by online users, causing his name to trend widely on social media and leading to thousands of hurtful comments. The student, Sunhil Tripathi, had actually been missing and later found dead of suicide unrelated to the bombing, and so this citizen-sleuthing-turned-smear-campaign had extremely traumatic effects on his grieving family. Another case is that of Peter Weinberg, who was wrongly identified as being a cyclist captured on a viral video hurting a child. Weinberg’s home address was shared online to millions of users, resulting in him receiving multiple threats and police needing to patrol the area. He was later excluded as a suspect due to his confirmed alibi.
In tragic instances like those of Tripathi and Weinberg, those accused of crimes are done so without any due process and have no real form of redress once their personal information is shared online and results in both their harassment and harassment of their families. However, these possibilities are not typically discussed in documentaries portraying OSINT. While the online space has revolutionised our ability to communicate about and investigate crimes, it is also important to remember that the internet does not always get it right.
With this blog post, we aimed to demonstrate how the depiction of open source investigations in popular culture as a fast-paced and easy process, which can give rise to more online ‘citizen sleuthing’, can be problematic for both victims of crimes and those accused. The consequences of unrestricted engagement in investigations illustrate the importance of standardised procedures in the justice system for reducing harm to both victims and those accused of crimes. It is also imperative, especially at present where disinformation has been rampant on social media, that those who are not properly trained in open source methods do not spread more false information. While the international justice process is by no means perfect, working within the framework of a justice system and protocols for investigations ensures that the rights of all parties involved are respected and that there are boundaries to what can be pursued and shared. However, such justice systems must also have the flexibility to adapt to changes as a result of new technologies and with the aim of increasing participation where possible.