On November 13, 2022, four University of Idaho students – Ethan Chapin, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle and Madison Mogen – were found dead in the home the the last three rented close to campus. Each was stabbed, apparently in bed. Two other students lived in the house and were apparently in their rooms that night; they were unharmed.
From the public’s point of view, the case had few leads at first: an unknown assailant, an unknown motive. Law enforcement officials in the university town of Moscow, Idaho, initially offered the public little information about the evidence they were gathering in their investigation. Into this void arose a frenzy of public speculation – and, soon, public accusation. The well-known alchemy began: the real crime, as the weeks went by, became a “true crime”; the murders, as people discussed them, analyzed them, and competed to solve them, became a dark form of interactive entertainment.
Unsubstantiated rumors spread online as people with no connection to the dead students tried to make sense of a senseless crime. They blamed not just a bully, or several of them, but also drugs, revenge, bullying, more. They dug deep into students’ TikToks and Instagram feeds, looking for clues. They wrote the students’ lives and their deaths. As the weeks passed, their numbers grew. A Facebook group dedicated to discussing and speculating about the murders currently has over 230,000 members. Subreddits dedicated to it have over 100,000 members each. His posts range from the thoroughly forensic – analyzes of autopsy reports and the knife allegedly used in the murders – to the broadly theoretical. (One post, citing a blind item by DeuxMoi, asked aloud whether Kim Kardashian would get involved in the case.)
Many of the members who have offered their theories – and who continue to offer them – probably mean well. Amateur detectives helped reveal the identities of some of the Golden State serial killer’s victims; the mother of Gabby Petito, who died in 2021, praised the many people who, scouring social media for clues, played a crucial role in solving her daughter’s murder. But the quest for collaborative justice in the Idaho murders has tended to thwart justice itself. This complicated the on-the-spot investigation and, as baseless accusations surfaced, created more victims. With remarkable ease, some people’s pain became others’ puzzle.
Theories about the murders sometimes read like fan fiction. On TikTok, Facebook and YouTube, people pointed fingers, based on strong hunches and apparently without evidence – accusations that were amplified by others. Soon, fantastic theories infiltrated the lives of real people. The signs pointed to the two housemates who were unharmed. (They “must know more than they’re letting on,” read one video caption.) They turned their gaze to the owner of a food truck where two of the students stopped before heading home the night of the murders. (“Possible stalker??” one detective wondered.) The cops, investigating the actual crime as the “real” one that occurred online, eliminated the residents and the truck owner, among others, as suspects. The Moscow Police Department’s website now has a “Humor Control” section, a notable modification of its FAQ section that attempts to combat some of the misinformation that has been circulating. Among the questions the section answers are “Who does NOT believe was involved?”, “What resources are being used to investigate this murder?” and “Are reports of skinned dogs related to this murder?” (They are not.)
“Everybody wants something crazier than that. This he has to get crazier”, says one of the detectives who provided information about the case of Gabby Petito in a documentary that premiered months after her murder. The key word in the woman’s comment is not more crazy; it is would you like. The amateur detectives in the Petito case certainly may have been motivated by generosity, outrage, and a desire for justice. But they were also gaining from their share: followers, likes, the fickle currencies of the content economy.
Speculation about the Idaho murders took on a similar frenzy. To read all the theories – or scroll, or watch – is to feel the ownership at play: people weren’t just trying to solve the case, but trying to claim the tragedy for themselves. (“Please stop making these poor children your identity,” pleaded a recent Reddit post. It was upvoted more than 2,200 times.) The baseless—sometimes fanciful—speculation has continued, despite repeated attempts by investigators to crack down on it. there. The rumors were adding chaos to the investigation, they said. They were bringing more trauma to the grieving people.
In their attempts to verify the insinuations, the official investigators faced the most powerful of enemies: the trending topic. The murders – having very specific types of victims and especially gruesome circumstances – quickly became matters of national interest. This also made them an incentive for content creators. On Youtube, vanity fairDelia Cai pointed out, top news clips that address the murders have over 1 million views each. On TikTok, videos claiming a connection to the murders — #idahocase, #idahocaseupdate, #idahokiller — now have a combined total of over 400 million views. These true crimes assume the real crime and have no obligation to justice or evidence. Content, in the economy of the eyeball, is tautological. When attention is its own reward, the tempting take is more valuable than the real one. This is the dull tragedy underlying the acute one: the murders made numbers.
As strangers subscribed to the story—competing, as one expert put it, “to make a connection or discover a secret, often for likes, shares, clicks, and attention”—they created more pain. Some friends and classmates of the victims, while mourning, began to receive death threats. People posted the names and photos of those they knew of the victims, accusing them of vague connections to the crime. (The posters typically remained anonymous.) One YouTuber analyzed the “red flags” allegedly posed by Kaylee Gonçalves’ ex-boyfriend — resulting in, her aunt told the new york post, an aggravated trauma: mourning the loss of the woman he dated for five years and acknowledging the fact that “half of America” assumed he was a murderer. He was ruled out as a suspect by police officers. But the speculation will remain – spawned by posters armed with hunches and made permanent in the archives.
And so, in the name of justice, many lost their humanity. They treated real people as characters in a procedure that aired not on their TVs, but on their phones and computers—CSI or Law and order, playing in real time. And they treated the characters, in turn, as texts to be read, analyzed and vilified. People eager to make big discoveries combed through the obituaries of other University of Idaho students who have died in recent years, trying to connect their deaths to the murders. The father of one of these students asked that they stop trying to link his own son’s death to these other dead children.
But the detectives kept going — even when, on Dec. 30, police arrested Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old doctoral student in Washington state near Moscow. Kohberger was studying criminology. Charged with four counts of murder and one count of robbery, he is currently being held in Idaho without bond. His lawyer said he was “eager to be exonerated”. Investigators cited cellphone data, surveillance footage and DNA samples among the evidence they will use, they say, to connect him to the crime. Earlier this week, authorities handling the case released a 49-page document detailing facts gathered during weeks of investigation. Some of the information resembles internet theories. Not much of it.
Criminal procedure is a uniquely stereotyped genre. One of its essential elements is the cathartic conclusion: the big reveal, the shocking twist. This story will most likely not have such a payoff for the audience. Kohberger will be prosecuted and may or may not be found guilty. Prosecutors will rely on evidence, both detailed and boring, to make their case. In the meantime, speculation will continue – despite the arrest and damage caused to people who, according to the authorities, have no connection with the case. Shortly after the murders, TikToker Ashley Guillard claimed to have solved the case. The killings were ordered, she announced, by a professor of history at the University of Idaho. (Actually, by the chair of his history department.) Guillard shared a photo of the professor in videos that have been viewed more than 2 million times. Guillard says she drew her conclusion from a deck of tarot cards and has remained firm in her presumption of the professor’s guilt, although the official investigation has ruled it out as a suspect. But Guillard was defiant in the face of facts. She will go on, she said The washington post— even now that the professor has filed a defamation suit against her, citing damage to her reputation and fears for her safety. “I’ll keep posting,” Guillard said. “I’m not writing anything down.”