True crime is trending and TikTok is totally transfixed. With over 8 billion views amassed under various true crime and true crime adjacent hashtags, cyber sleuthing has quickly become one of the app’s most prominent genres. This morbid obsession with murder is not a new phenomenon; from novels, podcasts, and the seemingly endless supply of films and docudramas churned out by Hollywood, true crime entertainment has enthralled consumers for centuries. Generating exponential growth for the already popular genre, TikTok has seen an unprecedented spread of murder-centered content.
In recent years, the true crime film industry has been hit with backlash for glorifying and sensationalizing murder (read about Hollywood’s morbid obsession with serial killers here). Documentaries in particular have received heavy criticism for capitalizing on the trauma of the real-life victims they spotlight, many of whom do not consent to the production. The transition of true crime from film to fingertips presents an entirely new onslaught of complications.
millions are now able to weigh in and even attempt to solve cases as they unfold, resulting in a rampant uptick in misinformation, conspiracy, and victim blaming.
While true crime documentaries are certainly problematic in their own right, their narrative and reach are relatively contained; the slow-moving nature of production means that these films usually don’t reach screens for months, or even years after the trials they depict. TikTok, however, allows users to produce content on trending cases in real-time. While there is a certain level of decision-making in choosing to sit down and watch a documentary, algorithms have the ability to push out a single video to millions of users, most of whom do not actively seek out the content. Whether they choose to watch it or not, millions are now able to weigh in and even attempt to solve cases as they unfold, resulting in a rampant uptick in misinformation, conspiracy, and victim blaming.
It has now been four months since the devastating case that online detectives colloquially coined the “Idaho Murders.” When news first emerged about the tragic killing of four students at the University of Idaho, the case was quick to go viral on TikTok with the leading hashtag, #Idahomurders, hitting over a billion views in mere weeks. The content produced ranged from ‘informational’ slideshows educating viewers on case details, to increasingly wild accusations of who they thought was guilty. Soon, completely baseless claims came to have real-world consequences. First, it was a professor at the school, who, not even in the same city the night of the crime, was repeatedly harrased by a tik-tok ‘tarot reader.’ This so-called seer, Ashley Guillard, who’s videos garnered thousands of views each, not only accused professor Rebecca Scofield of killing the students, but of having romantic involvement with one of the victims. While none of these claims were pursued by authorities, a representative for Scofield discussed how they damaged the professor’s reputation and caused acute emotional distress; Scofield has since filed a million-dollar lawsuit against Guillard. Even more perverse were the continuous tirades against the victims’ roommates. After an affidavit was released by court officials that showed a discrepancy in one of the roommate’s stories, various TikTok creators were quick to attack, displaying an alarming lack of empathy. Under one viral video, user8079351256336’s top-liked comment read “brah i knew the roommate is sus af.” Other commenters nonchalantly described gruesome crime scene details as ‘definitive evidence’ that the roommate was lying. At this point in the case, none of the roommates were even police suspects. After the trauma of navigating a period of unspeakable tragedy, they now had millions of self-proclaimed sleuths accusing them of the very murders they were mourning.
…users were quickly desensitized to the violence they were discussing.
The ‘Idaho murders’ are the perfect illustration of the dangers of TikTok’s true crime trend. Armed with algorithms and the anonymity of an online username, creators were able to magnify conspiracies en masse with little to no accountability for their lack of accuracy or empathy. With such a magnitude of exposure, users were quickly desensitized to the violence they were discussing. On a broader scale, the case indicates the frightening reality of social media, and how easily it allows users to forget that the tiny figures on their phone are not characters in some mystery game designed for their entertainment, but real people experiencing real trauma.
On December 30, 2022, Brian Kohberger, a criminology PHD student at the university was arrested and charged for the murders. Since his arrest (which I don’t think any true crime junkies saw coming), media coverage on the case has certainly decreased, but newly emerging cases have quickly risen to take its place.
Most recently, it’s the Murdaugh Murders. This case first came about in 2021, when Alex Murdaugh, a powerful lawyer, called 911 about the fatal shooting of his wife and son. Since then, the case has been imbued with mystery, particularly in the past month with the conviction of Alex himself. And of course, TikTok fascinated. Like the Idaho Murders, TikToks on the Murdaugh case have quickly garnered millions of views, while the pattern of rampant conspiracy and antipathy has continued. This time, it’s Alex’s son Buster, who is the target of Tiktok sleuths who, substantiated by zero legal evidence, are convinced he is somehow involved in his dad’s crimes. The second most viewed video under #murdaughmurders is a side by side splice of Buster’s reaction to his father’s testimony, overlayed by J Cole’s popular song “She Knows.” Thousands flooded the comment section claiming Buster’s stony-faced reaction, likely resulting from a state of immense shock and grief, as definitive evidence that he ‘did it.’ Buster has recently begged online users to stop the baseless accusations.
There is something gruesomely entrancing about the mystery of murder.
True crime has fascinated people for centuries, so it is only natural that it would make its way to social media. I myself have gotten sucked into the true crime black hole on TikTok– clicking on video after video of some 20-part crime series and trying to ‘solve the murder’ before reaching the last segment. There is something gruesomely entrancing about the mystery of murder. But the way that these real-life tragedies have been transformed into a perverse online game makes one thing clear: TikTok has taken true crime too far.