A cyber sleuth, also known as an internet sleuth, web sleuth, or armchair investigator, is a person who does any kind of detective work using the internet. So in theory, anyone with access to the internet, and an appetite for true crime, can become a cyber sleuth. Although I’m interested in true crime and I’ve consumed my fair share of documentaries, books, and podcasts on the subject, I don’t consider myself a cyber sleuth. Why? Because my interest with true crime has not led to active participation in the online sleuthing community. In other words, I’m not a member of a forum like web sleuths, nor have I looked for clues to solve a case. So I suppose I have a passive interest in true crime rather than an active one. However, I find the idea of a cyber sleuthing fascinating because it’s so divisive. On the one hand, people may view cyber sleuths as individuals with too much time on their hands, who are a nuisance and get in the way of ‘proper’ investigating. On the other hand, people may see them as individuals who make the time to try and help, sometimes with success. As I myself am unsure of my take on cyber sleuths, I want to use this blogpost to explore the issue. I use two Netflix documentaries as case studies to analyse the advantages and disadvantages associated with cyber sleuthing. Although both documentaries have their flaws, I feel they help to illustrate the two sides well.
We’ll start with the advantages, and the documentary I’ve chosen to explore the positive side of cyber sleuthing is Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer. This series follows a group of cyber sleuth animal lovers who came together after a viral video surfaces on the internet of a man killing two kittens. The cyber sleuths launch an investigation into the animal abuser, who would go on to murder a Chinese international student.
The first advantage of cyber sleuthing which Don’t F**k With Cats perfectly demonstrates, is that the practice can actually help solve cases. While we rarely hear about it on the news, cyber sleuths have produced results that have a real world impact. In the case of Don’t F**k With Cats, the cyber sleuth’s investigating helped a murderer be convicted. So surely it can be argued that it is better that cyber sleuths continue their work and help make society a little bit safer?
The second advantage is cyber sleuths are often flexible with their time and are willing to go through arduous details. Don’t F*** With Cats perfectly demonstrates this as we hear about the cyber sleuths painstakingly going through the video frame by frame, scrutinising plug sockets and cigarette packets for any indication of the killers whereabouts. Moreover, these people often come from very different backgrounds with very different sets of skills which can be very beneficial in cases.
To help explore the disadvantages of web sleuthing, I chose the documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. This documentary covers the case of Elisa Lam, a young Canadian student who was found dead in a water tank at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. The documentary deals with Lam’s mysterious disappearance, the investigation into her death, and the discovery of her body.
The first disadvantage with cyber sleuths is that they make mistakes and these mistakes can hurt people. In the Elisa Lam case, a heavy metal musician called Pablo Vergara had his reputation attacked and his name dragged through the mud when cyber sleuths suspected he had something to do with Lam’s death. Their suspicions were based solely on his music found on YouTube, and his presence at the Cecil hotel shortly before Lam’s death. Although Vergara was cleared of any involvement, the cyber bullying almost led him to take his own life. Thus, the mistakes made by cyber sleuths can have serious and real life consequences.
The second disadvantage with web sleuths is that they do not have do abide by a certain protocol. Sure, in some web sleuthing forums there are certain rules that members must follow unless they want to be kicked out. But unlike in traditional police work, cyber sleuths can go rogue and there are no constraints really stopping them from gathering information illegally. Furthermore, publishing this information can lead to online shame-campaigns of suspects, just like what happened with Vergara.
The documentary also perfectly illustrates the third disadvantage with cyber sleuthing and that is that it can bring out the worst in people. At one point in the Cecil Hotel documentary, we watch a group of web sleuths visit the Cecil Hotel to retrace Lam’s final steps. They go the lift where the last footage of her was taken, and they go up to the roof where her body was found. It is disturbing to watch just how excited they are to be there and it seems as if it’s nothing more than a thrill for them.
As I was only able to come up with two advantages of cyber sleuthing that I really believe in, perhaps this indicates that I fall into the category of those who are more sceptical of cyber sleuths. At the same time though, I will admit there is a voyeuristic quality in following true crime stories. I enjoy the mystery of crimes, and following these crimes, whether it’s on a podcast or a documentary, allows me to still remain detached from them. In conclusion, I would argue that the internet has brought us closer than ever to true crime, and there is not doubt that the line between what is appropriate and inappropriate involvement in cases has been blurred.
Definition of a cyber sleuth:
Image from Don’t D**k With Cats:
Image from Crime Scene: Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.