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What happens when the internet tries to solve a murder?

Understanding the mysterious case of Kenneka Jenkins, 19, whose death turned online activism into scamming, fake news and social media sleuthing

“Listen, they’re afraid of these people out here. They’re afraid of us,” a man shouts through a megaphone as a line of police move slowly towards him and other angry protesters. “They don’t respect us, but they’re gonna release these tapes!” Last Saturday was Kenneka Jenkins’ funeral, however there’s still anger on the streets of Chicago.

The death of 19-year-old Jenkins, whose body was found in the freezer of the Crowne Plaza Chicago hotel, has become the most extreme case of social media CSI the internet has ever seen. On September 8, after partying in a room at the hotel, Jenkins is said to have become separated from her friends who called the teen’s mother at 4am to inform her that they were leaving the hotel and had her daughter’s phone. Police have since released CCTV footage of Jenkins stumbling through the hallway alone but none of the tapes show how she died. As 1000 attended her funeral their message was clear – they have not forgotten this case.

What makes her death so significant is not just the lack of CCTV footage that shows how she actually managed to get into the walk-in freezer, is that it's become symbolic of America’s race relations. They are hypersensitive right now. Colin Kaepernick lost his job because he knelt during the national anthem to protest oppression. White supremacists that descended on Charlottesville were called “very fine people” by the president. Police brutality remains unchallenged. In addition to all of this, 35 per cent of missing children are black, despite black children accounting for 14 per cent of America’s child population. All of the above has spawned the largest collective investigation in internet history in which every person with a profile is a policeman, a journalist and, above all, an expert ready to take on the task of protecting and serving in a country that constantly fails them.

When Jenkins mother, Tereasa Martin, publicly dismissed the police and hotel’s theory surrounding her daughter’s death and their handling of the case it unsettled mourners. Given the context, it was hard to dismiss the claims of foul play online as wild conjecture because it was completely plausible that a black woman's death would be mishandled by police. Pair this with that classic millennial habit of documenting almost every single moment via sites like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter, and suspicious spectators had all the materials they needed to try and piece the night together.

A video filmed by Irene Roberts, one of Kenneka’s friends, is said to have been the catalyst for the viral vigilante movement. The clip shows Roberts singing in the hotel rooms hours before Jenkins is thought to have gone missing. However, viewers allege that they can hear Jenkins saying “help me” in the background of the video. Roberts’ red hair and mirrored glasses made her a distinctive person to track down and hashtags mocking Roberts began to trend. The poor-taste #IreneChallenge involved imitating her appearance and accent while her number and the names everyone else visible in her live streams were circulated.

“Given the context, it was hard to dismiss the claims of foul play online as wild conjecture because it was completely plausible that a black woman’s death would be mishandled by police”

Speaking to Dazed, Daniel Trottier, an Associate Professor of Media & Communication at University Rotterdam highlighted similar examples of online investigations that had gone wrong. “An example of this would be the denunciation of Sunil Tripathi following the Boston Marathon bombing,” he explained, referring to student who went missing around the time of the terrorist attack and was wrongly accused by Reddit and 4Chan users as being responsible. The “crowd-sourced investigation” took place in chat rooms but eventually led to the real-life harassment of innocent families. “Individual digital media users risk making or supporting public accusations against those who are otherwise uninvolved in the criminal event. In cases where targets were involved in the criminal event, the public response may involve extensive harassment and threats, exceeding any notion of proportionality.”

But there are hundreds of videos narrated by passionate amateur sleuths who have slowed down and examined the CCTV footage and published their own theories. Some claim that the video has been edited to hide that Jenkins is being carried, others say the red boxes shown on screen are motion detectors picking up offenders who hide behind corners and furniture throughout, and then there are the people who don’t think the person in the video is her at all. Facebook groups boasting thousands of members swap “case discussions”. Whatever the theory, an online consensus was reached in the days after her death: the amateur sleuths think Jenkins was murdered.

Screenshots of conversations that allegedly support this theory were circulated and prominent figures like Kiela Brown have used Facebook and YouTube to release steady updates on their personal investigations. “Every theory has some truth to it, let's put it that way. Yes it does have to do with the friends and yes it does have something to do with the hotel,” she says confidently in a YouTube video to her newly gained 6,000 followers. According to her, Jenkins was set up to be raped, and beaten by men at the party who planned to film the attack and send it to her brother – and her body was sold to the hotel for organ harvesting. Brown does not reveal the sources of the information, and there are key details that have not been verified by police or Jenkins’ family. However, Brown’s detective work has been praised by her followers with some of them rewarding her financially via Paypal.

There’s something sinister about trading online theories about an active crime investigation in return for money and fame. Beyond the personal Paypal pages for “citizen journalists”, Jenkins’ mother has been forced to speak out against several fake GoFundMe accounts dedicated to her daughter, which claimed to be affiliated with the family. Fake news stories arise each week (this week some questioned whether Jenkins died at all) which suggests that people may be capitalising on the popularity of the case to gain a following and to see how far their rumours can spread. In-fighting between the digital prophets, who all claim to have the ‘truth’ on the situation, are leading the pressure for shocking information rather than any verifiable truths.

In recent years social media has taken huge strides toward the murky world of crime. While it has facilitated new criminals like death threatening trolls and revenge porn sadists, it’s online vigilantes that pose a threat to police work. A new community of ‘paedophile hunters’ are interfering with police work and entrapping innocent people UK police have warned. 

Chief Constable Simon Bailey works with the National Police Chief Council to investigate the impact of online vigilantes. He confirmed that misguided paedophile hunters are “taking risks they don’t understand”. “It can jeopardise ongoing police investigations,” he said before explaining that wrongful allegations could have grave consequences for the accused and negate months of investigative work. “Revealing the identity of suspected paedophiles gives the suspect the opportunity to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them.”  The same has happened in cases involving rape and domestic violence.

In much the same way if any of this information being published online comes from a reliable source, it should be used to aid police investigations rather than spread online giving perpetrators time to cover their tracks. What some have interpreted as a lack of reportage on a serious case is likely to be because newspapers are subject to laws and guidelines that prevent them from publishing information that may jeopardise legal proceedings. Anyone commenting about a case or making claims about who may have been involved in her death could impact a trial and sway the jury and while journalists can be prosecuted for contempt and imprisoned, it’s hard to imprison thousands of Twitter profiles.

The rules of the internet are changing faster than they have ever done before. It's the ability to let absolutely anyone dictate public discourse that is the marked change that makes this era of technology unlike any other. The voices that boost each trend breathe life into important topics which then echo through the traditional press. But the ripple effect this has on politics and policing are yet to be understood.

There's merit to making sure girls like Jenkin's are not forgotten but social media's role in this crime is unprecedented. The #KennekaJenkins hashtag, which is still regularly updated, signposts a pivotal point where high profile crimes become a public debate with no chair, a jury with no judge. But it remains unseen as to whether this will deliver justice or obstruct it.