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The Idaho Murders Exposes the Devil's Bargain of Working With So-Called 'Cybersleuths'

A quadruple murder draws an army of "digital detectives" who see the tragedy as their moment to shine.
  • Olivia Vitale and Andra Griffin in Cybersleuths: The Idaho Murders (Photo: CBS/Paramount+)
    Olivia Vitale and Andra Griffin in Cybersleuths: The Idaho Murders (Photo: CBS/Paramount+)

    Cybersleuths: The Idaho Murders, the new true-crime docuseries on Paramount+, centers on a series of horrible, sociopathic actions that degrade and harm society. It's also about a grisly quadruple murder.

    The intertwining of real-life crime with the pervasive use of social media has created a cottage industry of self-styled murder detectives. And while it seemed kind of cute and quirky for a while that people with YouTube channels were doing their own legwork to try to solve the odd cold case (Only Murders in the Building is predicated on that quirkiness), we've long since passed the point where the good work done by these cybersleuth outweighs the real harm of an army of half-informed vloggers bound in no way by ethics out in full force mucking up a case.

    Lucie Jourdan, who directs this three-part documentary following the 2021 murders of four college students in Idaho, isn't quite furious with these online detectives. Rather, she seems dumbfounded by their success, their certainty, and their reach. In each interview setup, Jourdan examines them with detached curiosity. What exactly has convinced these people that they can solve a quadruple murder from the comfort of their iPhone?

    In some cases, the police ask for their help. The November 2022 killing of four students in off-campus housing at the University of Idaho was a shocking event that terrified every parent who ever sent their kid away to college. The Moscow, Idaho police department, limited in resources and manpower, asked that anyone who had information on the four slain students or their killer call their tip line. Inspired by the idea that they could solve a crime better than the local cops, an army of YouTubers, vloggers, TikTokkers, and Instagrammers cracked their knuckles and got to work.

    Jourdan has put together an all-star lineup of amateur crime-solvers. There's "Bullhorn Betty," whose dogged pursuit of these cases makes you want to call up your mom and beg her to watch fewer true crime shows. True to her name, Betty tends to end up on someone's lawn yelling into a bullhorn. Olivia, of the "Chronicles of Olivia" TikTok channel, wants to be a filmmaker, and talks about how much these murder victims need her to tell their stories. While each one of these sleuths exhibits their own obsessively curated persona (the Boston bro who yells a lot; the blond girl who looks like she's on a later season of The Real World), listen to them long enough and they all start to speak the same language.

    They share a perma-skepticism of any kind of official statement or account from law enforcement, a tone that feels nicked from Nancy Grace (who is only mentioned fleetingly but seems like a spiritual godmother to these people). They often talk about "the media" and the things "they won't tell you." For a cybersleuth, their half-baked theories, amateur reading of evidence, and suppositions are arrows of truth being shot through the bubble dome of media gatekeeping.

    There is such a darkness to the deep certainty of these people, who believe that they are both right and righteous. "At one point you want to say 'When are we gonna respect the privacy?'" asks one vlogger in a moment of faux self-reflection, before immediately saying, "But on the other hand, we all wanna know." Jourdan seems content to step back from such moments of accidental truth, as if she can't believe they just said that out loud. When the judge in the trial against suspect Brian Kohberger institutes a gag order on the proceedings, one cybersleuth gripes, "This is your reward for helping: you get nothing."

    In addition to marveling at that kind of shamelessness, Jourdan brings in counterpoint interviews from a retired cop, FBI agent, and a legitimate crime reporter, Kathleen Hale, who covered the Idaho Murders for Vanity Fair. The retired local cop seems dumbfounded that anyone would take anything on the internet seriously, but Hale is more astute about this generation of cybersleuths and the way that their theories and suspicions about various figures in the case (the roommates, a guy by the taco truck where the victims were last seen) tend to fuel the hysteria around the case rather than produce valuable evidence.

    As the trial goes on, the amateur investigators switch tacks to search for a second killer or accomplice. Suddenly, the evidence against Brian Kohberger that they all worked so hard to amass could implicate more than one man. The cybersleuths began to view the cops and the prosecution as railroading a suspect who maybe didn't even have the knife in his hand. "People don't want there to be an end," Hale says, "because then they'd have to sign off."

    Contrary to what some of the interviewees may think, cranks on the internet aren’t isolated anymore. They're organized, obsessive, and have been fed a conspiracy-friendly persecution complex by politicians and right-wing media, which means they will never stop nor will they admit when they're wrong. Their actions and single-mindedness are corrosive to the bedrock of society.

    Throughout the amateur investigation, the slain students’ surviving roommates come repeatedly under suspicion for what they did and didn't do that night (and because they survived the murder at all). "Why wouldn't they have done [X]" or "why didn't they call [Y]?" The cybersleuths have no evidence, no procedure, just theory after theory spun from their imaginations, and movies and TV shows they'd seen.

    It's hard to tell whether it's arrogance or the blinders that come with obsession that cause the cybersleuths to be so certain in their conclusions, but the consequences are harassment and mental anguish for people who are mostly innocent. The Idaho Murders tells the story of one particular crime and the darkness of the people who set out to solve it.

    Cybersleuths: The Idaho Murders premieres February 6 on Paramount+.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: True Crime, Paramount+, Cybersleuths: The Idaho Murders