When Gabby Petito, a young American woman popular on #VanLife Instagram, went missing during a road trip with her boyfriend in August 2021, the world was confronted with a new social media phenomenon: TikTok amateur detectives. Within weeks of her disappearance, the app was flooded with millions of people combing through her digital backlog trying to understand why – when, where, how – she had disappeared, from the comfort of their homes. The nature of this “sleuthing” was largely seen as exploitative and harmful. And though a handful of users may have genuinely been trying to help, posts about Petito became just another cynical “trend” in which people knew they could easily get views and followers by posting unsourced theories about her. Since then, a handful of similar stories have proliferated on this invasive – and popular – corner of social media. After the death of four students in Idaho, north-western US, last month, videos trying to pinpoint the killer responsible racked up almost 400 million views on TikTok.
In the past month, social media has reached new heights of ghoulishness in response to the disappearance of Nicola Bulley, who went missing on 27 January. A body was found just over three weeks later and on 20 February was confirmed as hers. In that time, the hashtag #nicolabulley racked up nearly 400 million views on TikTok and nearly 160 million views on Instagram Reels, with both influencers and regular accounts making millions of videos dedicated to speculation around her disappearance. This content has generated endless press coverage, leading to a mass descent on her Lancashire village, with people retracing her steps and digging up the areas near where she went missing. One YouTube and TikTok influencer was even arrested and fined for his behaviour after “investigating” the area where Bulley went missing. The potential harm of this voyeurism may seem obvious to us – the police have stated these interventions are distracting the investigation – but the people posting about Bulley from their front-facing cameras seem to truly believe that what they are doing is painless, even helpful.
Darrel, a 39-year-old from Watford, is one such TikToker, posting as @dhbreincarnated (10,000 followers), who has regularly speculated about the Bulley case in the past month. He has posted more than 50 videos related to her since 6 February. They are almost exclusively dedicated to predicting who or what might be behind her disappearance, who appears suspicious, and where her body might have been. However, he does not class himself as a social media sleuth.
“I’m not [an] armchair detective, TikTok detective, anything like that,” he told me, “but what I am is someone who can see through BS and is quite clued up when it comes to people lying.”
Despite the police’s suggestion that videos like his are hindering the investigation, not helping it, Darrel believes that what he and other TikTokers are doing is useful. “They can take it with a pinch of salt, or they can sit and watch these videos and think ‘actually, we didn’t pick that up’.” He believes knowledge of both true crime and fictional crime shows can make someone more perceptive than the police. “People say, ‘You watch too many CSI documentaries or too many soaps, and now you think you’re a detective.’ But what happens in soaps and similar situations helps people to see the slip-ups.”
I asked Darrel if he sees these videos as exploitative attempts to go viral. “There are a lot of people out there who will get involved in this stuff – mediums saying, ‘We’re connecting with the dead…’ It’s all to gain views. It’s all to gain followers.” He, however, does not put himself in this category.
“There is absolutely nothing about true crime that is voyeuristic,” said Lucy Lipsy, a 26-year-old psychic from Wales, who posts as @lucylipsybuckingham on TikTok, where she has more than 20,000 followers. In the days since Bulley’s disappearance, Lipsy has posted several videos about visions she has had relating to the case, which have gained hundreds of thousands of views (few of her previous uploads managed to break into five figures). In a TikTok video posted shortly after Bulley’s body was confirmed, Lipsy said that now wasn’t the “time or the place” for further speculation, but went on to argue that her previous predictions had been proved correct and said she believes she knows the exact time Bulley “crossed over”.
“I do my job out of nothing but wanting to help people,” she said.
Not all TikTok true-crime creators post far-fetched theories – many use their accounts to share information released about a case. Hannah Lowrie, 27, is one of these TikTokers, who posts under the handle @hantruecrime where she has more than 300,000 followers. Until the pandemic, she had been working as an actor and joined TikTok in 2020, where she initially posted comedy sketches, dances and POV-style videos. She started making missing persons videos 18 months ago.
“I see [these videos] as helpful,” she told me. “I’ve become part of such an amazing community, it’s made up of some of the most giving and selfless people I know. It’s all about intentions – the majority of true-crime videos are made with good intentions.”
[See also: Your therapist shouldn’t be on TikTok]
There is little apparent value in re-reporting details from the news about Bulley’s disappearance, yet these videos draw in significant numbers of views, likes and followers. Lowrie said that her main passion is to increase awareness around missing people in the UK, and has previously pushed back against claims she is posting for engagement. But like other accounts, her most popular videos focus on sensational stories: listing celebrities who have been charged with murder, facts about famous killers and reporting recent media stories about murder charges. While social media can play a useful role in raising awareness about missing people, Bulley’s case was already high-profile. Lipsy also claimed to keep sharing videos so it “doesn’t go cold” – but few could argue this was a possibility with Bulley.
Lowrie said the sleuthing around the Bulley story was damaging. “When a case like Nicola Bulley’s goes viral, online speculation can cause real harm to the investigation,” she said. The influencer told me that she stopped posting videos about Bulley after a few days, citing concerns about the harm TikTok detective work can cause. But shortly after our conversation, Lowrie posted a new video about Bulley to her page. When I followed up with her on whether videos like hers were exploiting a woman’s disappearance for attention, she ceased replying to my messages.
It would be easy to blame the media storm around Bulley’s disappearance on a handful of TikTok creators, but our mass detachment from the real people at the heart of this case is symptomatic of much broader problems with social media. No platform has been spared the speculation. On Reddit, a page hastily set up about Bulley’s disappearance includes the tag “sofa sleuth” – marking it as a dedicated space for commentary from people at home. On Facebook, dozens of groups have been set up under the guise of “supporting” the investigation, which quickly descended into baseless theories. The police also made the grotesque decision to release a statement about Bulley’s personal life, widely criticised for being thoughtless, misogynistic and unhelpful – and encouraging yet more speculation from the public. The media, too, has reported obsessively on the case. In a statement after Bulley’s death was confirmed on Monday night, Bulley’s family criticised Sky News and ITV for their invasive coverage.
In a statement late last night (20 February), a TikTok spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with Ms Bulley’s family and friends at this difficult time. We have mobilised resources to monitor the evolving conversation about this case. We are taking action against violations of our Community Guidelines, including removing content and accounts, and limiting the reach of some content by making it ineligible for recommendation.”
Our primary concern in this moment should be with Bulley and her family, who are no doubt going through some of the worst days of their lives – which are likely only made more difficult by the media’s treatment of this story and the TikTokers haunting their village. This example should serve as a warning about a genre of content that is rapidly increasing in popularity. Bulley’s disappearance and death mark the rise of a new type of influencer, one that is unaware of the cruelty and harm their exploitative content can inflict – or who wilfully ignores it.