According to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, violent crime is at some of its lowest rates in recorded history. But the public’s appetite for stories about those crimes is more voracious than ever. Today’s true crime stories have not only captured the public’s imagination, but they’ve also impacted how investigations are conducted and how justice is dispensed—sometimes positively, and sometimes negatively.
By some accounts, the modern true crime era started in 2014 with the release of Serial, an award-winning investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig. Several more true crime stories in a similar vein would follow soon after, each reinvestigating a different crime.
Dawn K. Cecil, PhD, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and the author of Fear, Justice, and Modern True Crime, argues that this modern era of true crime is defined by three characteristics: bingeing, intimacy, and engagement.
It’s the engagement component that has given rise to crowdsourced justice and the trend of citizen sleuths: people who operate outside of the criminal justice system but independently contribute to investigations. These citizen sleuths seek out open source evidence, share their theories on social media, and can ultimately affect the outcome of a case.
“Citizen sleuths are not a new invention, but the modern true crime movement, media culture, and availability of information have combined to increase the popularity of citizen sleuthing,” Dr. Cecil says.
Citizen science, a cousin of citizen sleuthing, has served an important purpose in the scientific community, particularly in collecting evidence demonstrating climate change’s effects. Similarly, citizen sleuthing has the potential to offer tangible benefits to the traditional criminal justice system: avid true crime fans can volunteer their time to overburdened and budget-cut law enforcement agencies, helping to solve cold cases or overturn wrongful convictions.
But crowdsourced justice also has its pitfalls, and may even exacerbate some of the inequalities already present in the criminal justice system.
Below, we’ll take a look at three cases of true crime fueling crowdsourced justice, and then examine the top concerns associated with this trend.
The pioneer of the modern true crime era, Serial’s first season, in 2014, re-examined the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction (and life sentencing) of her boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed, for the crime.
Its episodes were downloaded over 68 million times in the first four months they were available and presented little-known evidence that cast the case in a new light, calling into question whether Syed was truly at fault and whether his trial had been completely fair. New books and documentaries about the case quickly followed, as did public pressure, and Syed’s appeals received popular support. Those appeals reached the highest court in Maryland, which concluded that Syed’s legal counsel had indeed been deficient, but did not warrant a new trial.
In 2019, Your Own Backyard, a podcast hosted by Chris Lambert, investigated the disappearance of Kristin Smart, which occurred in 1996—while Smart’s body was never found, she was declared legally dead in 2002.
Downloaded over five million times in the first six months it was available, Your Own Backyard brought a surge of attention back to the case, and encouraged new witnesses to come forward. Law enforcement officers credited the podcast with leading to critical breaks in the case that ultimately led to the arrest of Michael Flores, a long-time suspect, for Smart’s murder.
Lambert, when interviewed, said that he considered his work in progressing the case to be one part of several, and that the actions of law enforcement and the legal system were essential.
The Murder Squad, a podcast hosted by Billy Jensen and Paul Holes, gives actual assignments to its listeners, in an instance of what Jensen called crowdsolving. And in 2019, an arrest was made in the murder of Helene Pruszynski, a 40-year-old cold case, thanks to DNA evidence submitted by a listener of The Murder Squad (Jensen and Holes had encouraged their listeners to submit DNA samples).
Continuing with the show’s meta-nature, that listener was then interviewed on the next episode of The Murder Squad. The podcast emphasized the power of citizen sleuthing, and while the suspect would eventually be found guilty, hosts of The Murder Squad announced that justice had been done before the suspect had even entered a plea.
“Crowdsourcing efforts have been successful in helping with cases, and some are being run by professional investigators,” Dr. Cecil says. “But there are many potential issues with this trend. In some cases, it has become an industry for people to make money: you can pay to attend a crowdsourcing event and take part in the investigation. In general, when victimization is used to generate profit, in my opinion, we should question the ethics of this practice.”
True crime podcasts, books, shows, and documentaries are primarily created and sold as entertainment, which operates with a vastly different set of ethics than the criminal justice system: content creators may have good intentions, but media companies often are more concerned with pleasing their consumers and advertisers.
Privacy is a particular area of concern. In 2021, a victim’s family sued the producers of an upcoming film about their case, and in countless other instances, potential suspects have been harassed on social media for their proximity to a case covered in a true crime story.
“Investigating a case without those personally affected being aware is another ethical boundary that citizen sleuths might not consider,” Dr. Cecil says. “They may feel that they are doing the right thing, but they also might retraumatize those closely involved.”
Throughout history, law enforcement agencies have solicited the public for help in their investigations, via wanted posters, tip lines, and search parties. Today, they might have gotten more help than they’d like, with crowdsourced justice occasionally resembling mob mentality. Being interested in solving a crime doesn’t make someone good at solving a crime, and zealotry can do more harm than good.
Overeager listeners of true crime podcasts are not trained to conduct fair and thorough investigations; they’re trained to look for clues, and for deceit, even when there may be none. This effect has all the trappings of conspiracy theory: hidden truths are everywhere, and when you can’t uncover them, it’s because someone is purposely keeping them from you. If the world looks at every case as if it were an episode of a podcast or TV show, it’s not contributing to greater justice; it’s contributing to widespread psychosis. In 2021, internet sleuths were confidently calling out specific Facebook profiles as perpetrators of child murders—because of suspicion, not evidence—leading a local sheriff’s office to urgently ask their constituents, on Facebook, to stop before they ruined more people’s lives.
Crowdsourcing, in the abstract, is meant to bring together resources towards goals that have been unfairly under-resourced in the past. In that sense, one might hope that crowdsourced justice could correct for some historical inequalities in the criminal justice system, particularly those related to gender, race, and class—citizen sleuths could be able to access aspects of a case that are inaccessible to traditional law enforcement, or apply resources to exploring cases of potential wrongful conviction.
Unfortunately, however, there are more and more examples of true crime and crowdsourced justice reinforcing historical inequalities, rather than reducing them.
“From the crowdsourcing efforts that I am familiar with and based on characteristics of true crime and the true crime community, I would say that crowdsourcing does not help correct inequalities related to race, gender, and economics in the criminal justice system,” Dr. Cecil says. “True crime is known for over-representing white victims and women and girls as victims.”
The effect is so widespread, both in true crime and in the media, that it has its own term: Missing White Woman Syndrome. In 2021, when Gabby Petito went missing in Wyoming, the hashtag #GabbyPetito was viewed over 212 million times; she was white, blonde, and highly involved in social media. The news was a sensation, even though 710 cases of missing indigenous people had been reported in the state over the last decade—none of whom had garnered any significant media attention (let alone any crowdsourced justice). But crowdsourced justice, in the truest sense of the term, should correct for this over-representation, rather than perpetuate it.
When it comes to crowdsourced justice and citizen sleuthing, the genie is out of the bottle. As Dr. Cecil points out, this is not an industry that can be regulated—as long as there is curiosity and a free flow of information, it will continue to exist—but it can be better understood.
Experts have already begun to study the online communities and private citizens who participate in these types of citizen sleuthing and crowdsourced justice. Their findings will be valuable information for criminal justice professionals who find themselves more and more working side by side with the general public in their investigations.
“I do have hopes that some people who are interested in crowdsolving and citizen sleuthing will become engaged with trying to reform the system, and maybe even become those who work in the system,” Dr. Cecil says.
Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.