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Nicola Bulley: how TikTok detectives finally went too far

The flurry of speculation and conspiracy theories which arose in response to Nicola Bulley's disappearance shows the dark side of true crime and internet sleuthing

Yesterday, after a weeks-long search, police finally recovered the body of Nicola Bulley, a 45-year-old woman who went missing at the end of January, in the small village of St Michael’s on Wrye. During the course of the search, what now appears to be an ordinary tragedy led to a frenzy of speculation and conspiracy theories: YouTube videos, TikToks, Instagram Reels and tweets have racked up hundreds of thousands of impressions, and every stage of the case has been poured over in a tone ranging from coldly detached to almost gleeful. The death of a woman who leaves behind two young daughters has become, for some people, a form of entertainment.

The popularity of true crime has clearly allowed some people to recast their prurient, intrusive interest in real-world violence as a form of citizen journalism, just as social media has provided a platform for TikTok detectives, ’body language experts’ and psychics. But if we want to learn anything from this shameful episode, we can’t lay the blame entirely at the door of one genre. The rot runs far deeper than that. In a statement published last night, Bulley’s family condemned Sky News and ITV for contacting them immediately after they identified the body, saying, “They have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profiles. It is shameful they have acted in this way.”

As a BBC report by Marianna Spring revealed, “amateur social media sleuths” descended on St Michael’s, digging up woodland, filming content, and at one point attempting to break into an abandoned house for a better shot of the river where Bulley went missing. This reached such a fever pitch that the police issued a public dispersal notice and local residents resorted to hiring private security firms. The situation has been just as bad online, where Bulley’s grieving friends have been described as “crisis actors”; conspiracy theories have flourished that the disappearance was staged by the government; her husband has been vilified, scrutinised for signs of guilt and, at one point, someone even hacked into his Pinterest account to upload explicit images. To make matters worse, the police responded to all this by releasing painfully intimate details about Bulley’s private struggles.

Whether it’s trolls being cruel for the hell of it, professional journalists invading the family’s privacy or people who sincerely believe they are fighting to uncover the truth, the response to the case has been nightmarish from start to finish: if something bad happened to a person you love, this is the worst imaginable way that it could play out. Rather than being driven by compassion, it seems as though many of the people speculating on Bulley’s disappearance have been actively hoping for the most nightmarish explanation possible. They will be disappointed if it’s proven to be an accident (as it appears to be). Many of them will refuse to believe it. That would be too boring.

This ghoulish reaction has led many people to point the finger at the true crime genre. Since exploding in popularity with the release of Serial in 2014, true crime podcasts continue to enjoy a wide audience in Britain, and one which is growing year on year. Recent Netflix documentary series like Don’t F*ck With Cats and Trust No One have further cemented the idea that amateur online detectives can play an active role in solving crimes themselves. But at the same time, I’m not sure we’ve ever witnessed a more decisive cultural backlash to a trend. As objectively popular as it continues to be, there’s a growing narrative emerging that true crime is exploitative; that it reduces harrowing situations into ’content’; that it fetishes victims and trivialises the grief of their loved ones; that it promotes a conservative and fearful worldview; and that it ignores the structural causes of crime in favour of lurid sensationalism. The backlash against true crime is becoming a flourishing trend in itself. A flurry of recent novels have examined the genre’s moral ambiguities and the uncomfortable implications of our obsession for consuming real-life violence as entertainment, including John Darnielle’s Devil House, Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You (in which the protagonist notes the way that victims become “public property, subject to the collective imagination), and Eliza Clark’s forthcoming Penance.

True crime has also become a furtive subject for cultural criticism. In Dead Girls: Essays for Surviving an American Obsession, Alice Bolin suggests that the genre’s focus on young white women has a way of “effacing the deaths of leagues of non-white or poor or ugly or disabled or immigrants or drug-addicted or gay or trans victims”. In a blistering essay for Gawker published last year, writer Emma Berquist – who herself survived a random attack – argued that the genre is encouraging unhealthy levels of paranoia and suspicion: “True crime runs on heightened emotion and fear,” she wrote, “convincing people, and especially women, that every stranger is a possible murderer.” When the victim of a crime is subject to the level of intrusion we have seen in response to the Nicola Bulley case, this becomes a second violation. As Berquist concludes, “I think I would rather get stabbed again than have TikTok users descend like vultures on my social media, zooming in on pictures of my messy bedroom to analyse the tedious minutiae of my deeply average life.” Predictably, there has been an equally strident backlash to the backlash, with true crime fans and content creators arguing that the aversion to true crime is down to simple misogyny: it is predominantly consumed by women and therefore deemed illegitimate. This argument would be easier to swallow if the genre didn’t seem to encourage, so consistently, such a callous disregard for the lives – and deaths – of actual women.

What the backlash against true crime occasionally misses, however, is that these ethical questions aren’t new. While the genre has existed in some form for centuries, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966, is often cited as the first true crime novel. Reconstructing the murder of a family in Kansas, the book is written in a cool, almost omniscient third person, which obscures the fact that Capote was on the scene and meddling in the investigation from the very beginning. He consistently blurs the line between fact and fiction, inventing entire scenes out of whole cloth, and lies about important details. In an effort to form a relationship with Perry Smith, one of the murderers, he misrepresented the nature of the book as he was writing it, neglecting to mention its condemnatory title (upon discovering it Smith was horrified). But for all of these ethical failings, In Cold Blood is a literary masterpiece. You could make the case that the ends justified the means, as you could for a number of contemporary works within the genre. But this is not a convincing defence for Twitter threads and mediocre podcasts.

There is another notorious case that illustrates the slippery, exploitative nature of true crime. In the early 80s, an accused murderer named Jeffrey MacDonald invited journalist Joe McGinniss to write a book about his case, hoping this would help to clear his name. McGinniss agreed, but quickly concluded that MacDonald was in fact guilty. Undeterred, he proceeded to write the book, all the while convincing MacDonald he was assured of his innocence – the pair became close friends. The book he eventually published, Fatal Vision (1983), portrayed MacDonald as a remorseless psychopath, which led to MacDonald suing McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confident man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse,” wrote Janet Malcolm in a book about this case. Rather than being a periodic slip, she suggests, dishonesty and exploitation lie at the heart of journalism.

While true crime gets the most of the flak for this kind of ethical violation, the genre is by no means an exception or even the worst offender. However disgusted we might be by amateur sleuths compounding the trauma of a grieving family, we can’t pretend that this is a distinctly modern, distinctly online phenomenon. Is the traditional media any better? It wasn’t that long ago that British tabloids hacked the voicemail of a missing teenage girl, who later turned up dead, and the mother of an eight-year-old girl who was murdered. These practices were not given up voluntarily, and to this day it’s still common for the press to harass grieving families and intrude on their privacy, as the Nicola Bulley case has shown. There is also a long, shameful history of the British press smearing the reputations of people who have been killed, from victims of the Hillsborough disaster to civilians murdered by the British state in Northern Ireland. The tabloids can wring their hands about ’TikTok ghouls’, but they can’t lay claim to the moral high ground. At best, they can complain that other people are encroaching on their territory.

Maybe the reaction to Bulley’s death can be read as yet another example of social media poisoning our brains, but there’s little you can accuse these ’citizen journalists’ of which doesn’t hold true for many of their counterparts in traditional media. In their written statement last night, Bulley’s family made no distinction between the press and members of the public: both “misquoted and vilified friends and family”. Whether you want to sell more newspapers or boost your follower count, the incentive is fundamentally the same. The public interest in these cases is also nothing new. Amateur detectives have always existed, just as there has always been an appetite for grisly crimes. The internet hasn’t invented these impulses, it’s just allowed them to play out on a greater scale, democratising the most cynical and cruel aspects of the traditional media it threatens to replace.