THIS week Love Islander turned BBC documentary filmmaker Zara McDermott launched her latest offering on the iPlayer. Following her previous films on revenge porn (of which Zara has been a victim herself), rape culture, disordered eating and a deep dive into the disappearance and subsequent tragic death of Gaia Pope, Zara’s latest documentary investigates the shocking murder of four students in the small university town of Moscow, Idaho and the “trial by TikTok” that ensued afterwards.

The case might ring a bell – in the immediate aftermath of the November 2022 killings, the internet quite literally imploded in search of answers. The case had a grip on TikTok in particular and amassed views exceeding two billion hits.

Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin were brutally stabbed to death, seemingly in their beds. Two other housemates who were apparently in the house at the time of the murders were left unharmed.

The investigation that followed inspired global hysteria and birthed some of the ugliest internet sleuthing of our time. Bryan Kohberger, a criminology graduate, was later arrested and charged in connection with the case – but not at the behest of internet crime crusaders.

There is no formula to pinpoint exactly why this case in particular invited so much investigation from the general public.

The fact that the case rumbled on for more than six weeks with little communication from authorities before an arrest was made – in conjunction with the shock of such a violent crime committed against young students in a town that hasn’t seen the local police department investigate a homicide in the last seven years – seemed to provide the perfect storm for the story to implode. And to the detriment of the truth, implode it did.

Within a couple of days of the murders, Moscow was overrun with internet sleuths and self-proclaimed journalists who claimed to be in search of the truth.

Video tours and walkthroughs of the town soon made their way to TikTok, including somewhat brazen clips and images of the cordoned-off crime scene and various efforts to harass those that the internet had decided were suspects. It wasn’t long before social media had descended into a full-on frenzy.

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Amongst an online community of people entirely disconnected from the people at the heart of the investigation, some even thousands of miles away, motives were concocted, suspects were identified, the last moments of the victims were decided on and played out. Those competing for views scrambled desperately to make sense of a senseless crime.

As time went on, and the thirst to know what happened to those poor young people grew, the more ludicrous the sleuthing became.

One University of Idaho professor was forced to initiate legal proceedings against a so-called TikTok psychic medium who had claimed that she discovered the professor was the murderer during a psychic reading.

One young man, whose only crime that evening was to stand in a queue behind two of the victims, was doxxed alongside his entire family. The two housemates who were in the house as their friends were murdered were eventually forced into hiding after the internet decided their survival and how they responded was suspicious – despite not actually knowing anything concrete about what had transpired that night.

While communication from investigating authorities wasn’t particularly forthcoming in the eyes of the public, there was a live and highly sensitive investigation underway to identify whoever was responsible – and given the global public interest, the integrity and success of the judicial process were reliant on as little information being disseminated as possible.

The public were hanging on every development in this case and, as had been proven in the early days of the investigation, they were going to run with whatever tidbits of information they could find.

But the absence of that information created a void to be filled by a frankly unhinged online presence that directed attention in almost every direction besides the truth. Despite their best efforts, not one online sleuth had identified the now-charged Kohberger as a suspect. Many even went on to cast doubt on his arrest, shocked that their investigative efforts had been rendered somewhat irrelevant.

It was one of the worst examples of the downsides to the technological age. Unsubstantiated theories that threatened the safety and livelihoods of innocent people were circulated with zero compassion or even basic respect for the victims themselves.

The murders became a twisted source of entertainment, exploited by egotistical online fanatics who thought they were more capable of solving the case from their living rooms than the FBI.

It did nothing to serve the investigation, or deliver justice to the victims or their families, despite what those engaging in it might claim. And it serves as proof that while there are massive benefits to our increasingly online lives, there are serious consequences in real life. In this case, for our judicial processes, which were hindered by an insatiable global nosiness.

McDermott has dived head-first into some really bold and serious topics, and is to her credit doing a good job of shining a light on topical issues. This was a really interesting angle on the Idaho case that hasn’t had nearly enough attention.

Internet sleuthing, in its evolved post-Idaho murders form, is sure to be a solidified part of modern life going forward – and we need to adapt as a society to it. The first step in doing that is to recognise just how ridiculous it can be.