It’s a given that when a bad news story surfaces in the media, a stream of crass commentary soon follows. From bad jokes and deliberate trolling to those who find a tenuous way of centring themselves in the media storm, people will post anything – anything – about a trending story, reducing a terrible situation to just another excuse for attention.
This ethos drives online responses to any sensitive story, including – and especially – high-profile murders and criminal investigations: so much fresh fodder for the online “true crime community”. Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of social media sleuthing and content creation around missing person cases, such as the disappearances of Gabby Petito and Nicola Bulley, both of which turned into a global social media frenzy generating thousands of tweets and billions of views on TikTok. The latter case even led to an influx of “true crime tourism” in Bulley’s hometown of St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, with people searching for her body and visiting sites connected to her disappearance while the investigation was going on. To many, these displays of cynicism and emotional detachment from such serious events are galling. To others, these stories are simply another form of entertainment.
The latest news subjected to this trend is the case of Lucy Letby, the British nurse found guilty of murdering seven babies and attempting to murder another six. In the weeks surrounding Letby’s sentencing, a familiar pattern of social media content has emerged: TikToks about Letby have gained hundreds of millions of views, many of them framing it as a juicy true crime story, with some accounts seemingly trying to find new angles to generate outrage after her sentencing, such as taking viewers “inside the luxury girly prison” where Letby is serving her sentence. Some true crime accounts have focused almost solely on Letby “content”, making dozens of videos about the case in the space of two weeks (and gaining far higher view counts than usual). Some have even made stand-up comedy style videos commenting on the relative comfort of her prison’s cells. The Letby case is now a global content creation phenomenon.
All of this looks like an increasingly standard part of the live true crime content cycle. But it’s not just limited to individuals online. The Daily Mail has serialised the Letby trial in a trashy true crime podcast, claiming to have had more than five million downloads. Even more chilling is a tacky, hour-long documentary about the Letby investigation made by the Cheshire Police department itself. The project was made with no press or journalists involved, but instead by the constabulary’s communications team, and it sells itself with salacious, cheap language, touting “exclusive access” to the main Operation Hummingbird investigators.
[See also: The disturbing rise of TikTok sleuths]
We are probably witnessing a tipping point in the online true crime scene, where live cases are not just converted to entertainment in real time, but where that entertainment is received as socially acceptable – even, for some, a fundamental public service. Now it’s not just shameless TikTok true crime fans, but serious institutions creating glossy content around these cases. Letby’s crimes are so disturbing that we might fool ourselves into believing that gratuitous and tone-deaf commentary can’t harm anyone other than her. But Letby is not the only person who will feel the negative effects of these obsessive, grotesque conversations.
This trend of brazen content is not just distasteful. It is linked to a rise in armchair detective work that has dangerous implications. The Letby case has demonstrated a trend of people believing – despite having zero expertise – that their personal opinions on a stranger’s innocence, guilt or appropriate punishment are relevant. In the last two weeks, no platform has been safe from ordinary people giving their take on this highly complex, specific investigation. Even media-literate, supposedly concerned individuals – who might condemn content released on TikTok or by the Cheshire Police as gross and unhelpful – have rushed to offer their thoughts, ultimately based on conjecture: that Letby’s ethnicity was a factor in why she wasn’t caught sooner; or that she might even be innocent.
This is an ugly human impulse, exacerbated by social media, in which unaffected individuals clamour to be part of a shocking societal event, no matter how tragic or disturbing that event may be, hoping their involvement will bestow on them relevance or authority. These constant bids for attention lead to a culture that is completely numb to extreme stories obsessively promoted for personal gain. The severity of what has happened is lost to the machinery that encourages us to always consider how something cruel and callous could be harvested for content.
After Lucy Letby, there will be other horror stories and thoughtless acts of violence that capture the public’s attention in a singular way. There will be more tabloid coverage, more podcasts, more tasteless TikToks. But we don’t solve anything by pretending this is the extent of the problem. By centring ourselves in a story that has nothing to do with us, we only feed a growing appetite for more content that will never be satisfied – at great social cost.
[See also: Why we’ll never understand Lucy Letby]