As the University of Idaho hosts a vigil Wednesday night in memory of four students who were fatally stabbed at an off-campus home, the lack of a suspect or clear motive more than two weeks later has fueled frustration toward police. and has spawned fans. detectives determined to solve the case.

The hundreds of tips and calls provided to local, state and federal investigators as a result of the cyber investigation can help both identify plausible leads and rule out potential suspects, but former FBI agents and law enforcement experts say which most of the time they are. an obstacle to an investigation, divert resources and attention, and can even be harmful by ensnaring innocent people.

«With what the police, with all the kinds of training and all the resources to help solve almost any kind of crime, have at their fingertips, it’s kind of hard to believe that anyone who surfs the internet can solve crime. we couldn’t,» said Pete Yachmetz, a retired FBI special agent in Florida with three decades with the agency. «I just do not get it».

Candles and flowers at a makeshift memorial honoring four slain University of Idaho students in front of Mad Greek restaurant in downtown Moscow, Idaho on November 15, 2022.Nicolas K. Geraniums / AP

But the case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old New York native who went missing last year while documenting her cross-country travels on social media with her fiancé, has become something of a role model for people fascinated by missing and unresolved persons. crimes

Intrigue surrounding Petito’s disappearance exploded on social media with a dedicated hashtag racking up more than a billion views on TikTok posts as users theorized about what happened to him. Petito’s body was eventually discovered in a Wyoming woods. A manhunt ensued for her fiance, Brian Laundrie, whose skeletal remains were found a month later in Florida.

Now, the murder in Moscow, Idaho, of the four University of Idaho students—friends Madison Mogen, 21; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; and Xana Kernodle, 20; and Kernodle’s boyfriend, 20-year-old Ethan Chapin, has become a new mystery for Internet detectives to speculate about. The three students lived in the house along with two other roommates, one of whose cell phones was used to call 911 just before noon on November 13. Authorities at the scene said they found the four victims stabbed multiple times apparently with a «sharp weapon.» «, like a large knife. No weapon has been found.

Officers investigate a homicide at an apartment complex south of the University of Idaho campus on Sunday, November 13, 2022.
Officers investigate a homicide at an apartment complex south of the University of Idaho campus on Sunday, November 13, 2022.Zach Wilkinson/The Moscow-Pullman Daily News via AP

A private Facebook group about the homicides now has more than 32,700 members in which users analyze previous social media posts friends made before their deaths, piece together their interactions with others on their Instagram, Facebook and Venmo accounts, and they even name people they think might be suspects or say the police should interview them.

A forum on Reddit has more than 27,000 members with users raising theories and discussing statements posted by law enforcement and victims’ families.

And on TikTok, posts with the hashtag #idahomurders have more than 94.2 million views, with users questioning whether a serial killer is behind the deaths or whether the homicides are linked to other similar unsolved stabbing cases in the region.

So far, investigators have said the deaths were part of a «targeted attack» and not related to other killings.

Four people were found dead in a residence near the University of Idaho, Moscow City police said.
Four people were found dead in a residence near the University of Idaho, Moscow City police said.KHQ

The guess based on what people found through Internet searches and social media apparently upset police in Moscow, who said on Sunday they received nearly 500 «digital media» tips on an FBI page dedicated to the case.

«There is speculation, without factual support, that is stoking community fears and spreading false facts,» the department said in a news release this week. The city’s website on the case also includes a «rumor control» section that seeks to block unexamined information.

The Idaho State Police, which is leading investigations into the case, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Adam Scott Wandt, assistant professor and vice president of technology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it’s no coincidence that the murder case of four Idaho college students is gaining traction on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, which he attributes to algorithms. advanced that are feeding this kind of posts to users.

“Gabby Petito went viral because there is no question that TikTok was pushing that hashtag,” she said.

But for every case like Petito’s where internet research can be advantageous (a YouTube video helped establish a possible crime scene and police focus their search efforts), there are many more where investigators chair seats only add to the noise, Wandt said.

In addition, multi-source investigations can ruin lives, he added, as happened when users on Reddit, Twitter and other social media platforms incorrectly identified suspects in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing based on photos and videos.

«It’s extremely dangerous,» Wandt said. «There’s a wild, wild west aspect to all of this.»

Jeremy Reagan, a University of Idaho law student living near the Moscow crime scene, is all too familiar with the misnomer.

An interview he gave to the media in which netizens said he seemed suspicious went viral, leading some to believe he was involved in the deaths of the students.

«The fact that I had a nervous smile on my face, people latched onto that. ‘Oh, he’s smiling, he’s proud of what he did,'» Reagan said. «But she wasn’t asking me to be interviewed by a reporter. She literally stopped me taking out the trash and I had nothing to hide, so I talked to her.»

Police came to interview him this week, he said, but made it clear that he is actually the victim of online harassment and unfounded rumors in which people went through his old social media posts to try to prove a connection. He recently began answering questions on Reddit to dispel the allegations.

«After I posted my side of things, a lot of people came up and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t think it was you,’ or ‘Hey, I originally thought it was you, and after reading your post, I realized it wasn’t you. it is,'» he said.

He added that he understands people’s curiosity and desire to be the one to unravel a mystery, but it shouldn’t come at a cost.

«Sometimes it can help,» Reagan said. «But I think a lot of times what people end up finding or reporting to the police just hampers the investigation. It’s a waste of time and resources.»