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Web Sleuths: Online Trolls or Crime Investigators?

Another month of lockdown in the UK, another month of endlessly watching anything and everything there is to find on Netflix with last month's top hit being a documentary on a mystery disappearance, "Crime Scene: the vanishing at the Cecil Hotel". Whether you have already watched it, or not, the documentary currently available on Netflix has been a hot topic on social media and the case itself has received quite a lot of attention. To summarise, the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles is renowned for being a 'dumping ground' for many crimes, such as: murders, drug abuse, prostitution, etc. A young Canadian tourist by the name of Elisa Lam, books herself a room at the Cecil alone and during her time there, mysteriously goes missing. Although the main story is interesting, what really interested me was that during this documentary there was an ongoing mention of the presence of 'web sleuths' that surfaced, once this case begun circulating online. 


But what is a web sleuth? Personally, prior to watching the documentary, I had never come across the term used. A web sleuth by definition is a term used to describe the internet community that focuses on solving crimes and missing persons cases. In this documentary, it is explained that upon hearing about the case of Elisa Lam and her disappearance, web sleuths wanted to take it upon themselves to try and solve the case. Despite it being in the hands of the LAPD, web users decided that with the information provided on the case by the media, they would be able to solve the case and take it into their own hands. This involved users of the internet taking to Youtube to create videos on the topic of her disappearance, taking apart evidence that was released by the media of her last known whereabouts caught on video. 

As is expected with many mysteries, a large number of theories were drawn from the evidence presented by the media. One of the many theories of Elisa Lam's disappearance was that someone was responsible and along with that came a storm...




Prior to Elisa's mystery disappearance being solved, the documentary told of a number of web sleuths nominating a Pablo Vergara - also known as musician 'Morbid', to be responsible for the murder of the young Canadian (Elisa). During the documentary, Vergara speaks on the wrath felt by many online users that had claimed he was responsible, not only for her disappearance but for her death. These accusations had spread so quickly and had become so hostile that Vergara felt he had no choice but to attempt to end his own life following the accusations, having attracted death threats by certain online users. Hearing of this situation left me feeling incredibly unsettled at the sheer force the online community has and the consequences that followed their attempt to solve Elisa Lam's disappearance through the web. 


It made me ask myself the question: do web sleuths do more damage than good?


However, whilst watching this story unfold in the documentary, I was reminded of a very similar case that I also learned about in a Netflix-produced documentary - "Don't F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer"This documentary revolved around a serial cat-killer that circulated videos on the internet of their committed crimes. Not only did these crimes include the murders of felines, but later also progressed to the torture and murder of humans. This case similarly drew a lot of attention from the online community, encouraging many individuals to form groups online to come together and solve the mystery identity behind the serial killer. Sadly, this documentary shared a similar storyline to the events that led to Pablo Vergara to his attempted suicide, unfortunately, false accusations made by those in the online community lead to the suicide death of Eduard Louis Jordan. However, eventually, the efforts made by the online web sleuths did succeed in leading to the capture of Luka Magnotta. Without the help of the 'web sleuths' in this scenario, it is highly unlikely his capture would have happened at the time it had and many more lives may have been lost.


These are just two of the many instances in which crime cases have circulated online and have drawn a huge presence of web sleuths, passionate about solving mysteries that government authorities cannot. One of the many famous yet, early cases that drew public communities together to solve crimes is that of the Zodiac killer. Have we all seen the film 'The Zodiac'? If no, switch Netflix back on and sit back to watch Ryan Gyllenhal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey JR play out the story for you in a 2007 thriller. The story of the Zodiac killer is renowned for the odd ways in which the Zodiac killer himself communicated with authorities and the general public. The murderer chose to send out ciphers to authorities, communicating clues and messages by means of code, which were later printed out by the media and distributed in newspapers to the public. Although the presence of the online world had not been apparent at this time, these ciphers still remain online today and are still being worked on by the online community, in hopes of solving the mystery identity of the zodiac killer, four decades later! 


Having considered all this, do we think the world would be better without web sleuths or would we be lost without them?


It seems a dramatic question to consider, however, knowing that their presence has aided in certain crimes being solved and criminals being captured I think its important to acknowledge the power of the online community.


It is quite clear that those in the online community, that may identify themselves as 'web sleuths', have good intentions behind their actions. However, I believe that the efforts made often fall short, due to the lack of information available. In my opinion, trying to solve the mystery behind a crime case - solely going off of information that is made public by the media, does not provide a huge amount of hope for a happy ending. But, it is important to note that no prosecuting system is undoubted without fault, and perhaps with the existence of web sleuths - not to be mistaken for online trolls - there will always be a little more hope in eventually resolving unsolved cases...

Layla McBain - Writer and Editor at Social Songbird

A recent BA English graduate, passionate about animals, traveling, and reading thrillers. Currently an aspiring digital marketer and practicing skills as a content writer.






Web Sleuths: Online Trolls or Crime Investigators? Reviewed by Layla McBain on Friday, March 19, 2021 Rating: 5
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