By Dr Elizabeth Yardley, Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University

Websleuthing is the internet-facilitated investigation of crime by people not acting in an official capacity. Websleuths are essentially the twenty first century’s amateur detectives. In recent years, thousands of people – me included – have flocked to spaces like www.websleuths.com, true crime Subreddits, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. There we pore over a range of cases from missing people to homicides, the solved and the unsolved, the contemporary and the historical.

This urge and curiosity is nothing new. People have always had an appetite to find out more about crime and mysteries. From following the true crime accounts in the 17th Century Newgate Calendar to devouring the latest Netflix documentary, crime – and particularly violent crime – is the embodiment of a wound culture where we are drawn to the trauma of others. Over the years these interests have come to encompass broader leisure pursuits too – for example the board game Cluedo, murder mystery evenings and trips to sites like Alcatraz in the middle of family holidays.

However, the opportunities for us to indulge our inner amateur detective have increased exponentially over the last two decades. Advances in computer hardware, software and networked media have enabled us to access more information about crime and connect with like-minded others in new virtual spaces, exchanging our thoughts and theories and as such, creating our own representations. Here we do much more than just look at crime and its investigation. We are participants in a world where the lines between producers and consumers, writers and readers, actors and audiences have become increasingly blurred, giving rise to terms like the prosumer [1].

Despite these developments, criminologists have remained rather quiet on the topic. The research that does exist tends to focus on websleuthing around particular types of crime. For example, “paedophile hunters” who lure, trap and expose alleged sex offenders are a popular topic for researchers. However, isn’t websleuthing about more than this? I certainly thought so given the types of experience I have had in recent years following a range of cases – including the disappearance of US college student Maura Murray and the murder of Hae Min Lee – a case catapulted into the cyber spotlight via the US podcast Serial. Indeed, last year I led research exploring the Serial Subreddit, where Hae Min Lee’s brother had expressed his anger at websleuth consumption of his sister’s murder as crime drama, stating “TO ME ITS REAL LIFE!”[2].

As such, along with a group of colleagues, I set out to explore websleuthing in more detail. The question we wanted to ask in this exploratory piece of research was What do we think we know about websleuthing? This involved looking at what the news media had to say about it. Most of us get our information about crime from the media [3], so this seemed a sensible place to begin.

We gathered articles from major world publications and discovered that websleuths are certainly becoming more newsworthy, the number of articles on the topic increasing each year from 1998. The range of online spaces around which these activities were reportedly taking place were wide and varying – from specialist places like www.websleuths.com to everyday sites like eBay, Facebook and Twitter. The types of case being investigated varied too – homicide, property offences, terrorism, missing people, fraud, animal cruelty, sexual offences, extortion.

The tone of the newspaper coverage was interesting. Websleuths who had taken it upon themselves to investigate property crime – for example stolen bikes and strollers – were written about in much more favourable terms than those sleuthing around violent crime like homicide. Different types of websleuthing also emerged – people worked alone as well as in groups, their sleuthing was sometimes spontaneous and at other times organised.  Their activities covered a wide spectrum including analysing content, looking for information, identifying suspects, reporting findings to law enforcement, speculating, launching campaigns and appeals, applying their own professional skills and directly engaging with suspects and victims. Reported motives were also very different and included drives to achieve justice or closure, to name and shame a suspect, to reclaim stolen property, to help a victim or their family, to prevent crime, to take on a challenge or simply just because they were obsessed by a case. News reports characterised websleuth/criminal justice relations as somewhat antagonistic. Whilst law enforcement appealed in online spaces, listened to websleuths and sometimes used information they provided, they were often cautious in attributing any credit to them. Having spent time correcting misinformation circulated by websleuths, many criminal justice officials were keen to warn about their potential harm to investigations.

In short, we discovered that websleuthing is a much more complex and varied activity than the current criminological literature suggests. Websleuths are adapting, adopting and creating spaces in which to gather, discuss, research and create case archives. They operate alone and in groups, sometimes reacting to current cases or events and at other times being more organised, strategic and long-term in focus.

Their presence raises some serious questions for crime and criminal justice in the twenty first century. Is websleuthing here to stay? Does it do more harm than good? Do websleuths have a role to play in contemporary policing? Why are websleuths drawn to particular cases but avoid others? These are questions we intend to address as we continue on our journey to make sense of websleuthing.

What’s the deal with ‘websleuthing’? News media representations of amateur detectives in networked spaces by Elizabeth Yardley, Adam Lynes, David Wilson and Emma Kelly is out now in the journal ‘Crime Media Culture’.

References

[1] Ritzer, G., & Jurgenson, N. (2010). Production, consumption, prosumption: The nature of capitalism in the age of the digital “Prosumer.” Journal of Consumer Culture, 10(1), 13–36.

[2] Yardley, E., Wilson, D., & Kennedy, M. (2015). “TO ME ITS [SIC] REAL LIFE”: Secondary Victims of Homicide in Newer Media. Victims & Offenders. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15564886.2015.1105896

[3] Surette, R. (2015). Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice. Washington: Cengage Learning.

 

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