We Need To Talk About Internet Sleuths

Amateur detectives have been trying to solve crimes through the Internet since its popular inception. But over the last few weeks, a few documentaries have been released that highlight the role of so-called “internet sleuths” and how their online conversations and clue-searching have material, offline implications.

Netflix’s The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and FX and Hulu’s Framing Britney Spears focus on the complicated personal issues and tragic circumstances of two very different women, but they both have one thing in common — how Internet sleuths latch onto the stories, dissect every publicly available piece of information, and even, at times, take matters into their own hands. Netflix’s past docuseries Don’t Fuck with the Cats explored a similar phenomenon, and perhaps most infamously, Reddit took matters into their own hands during the hunt for the 2013 Boston Marathon bomber.

The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel examines the case of Elisa Lam, a twenty-one-year-old Canadian student who was found dead in a water tank atop the roof of the infamous Los Angeles Cecil Hotel. In Framing Britney Spears, the famous pop star's legal conservatorship is discussed, in which she hasn’t had free control over her person or estate for thirteen years. Both cases, while disparate in subject matter, attracted the attention of Internet sleuths, who become obsessed with the case, connect with fellow like-minded individuals online, and dissect any and all breadcrumbs that they can find — and in many cases, inventing something out of nothing to create what they believe are secret messages or pieces of evidence of a larger conspiracy.

The case of Framing Britney Spears is much tamer than Elisa Lam’s. For instance, Britney Spears has been in the public eye since she was a child on the Mickey Mouse Club. She is a bastion of modern celebrity, but even she deserves her privacy and a reprieve from the paparazzi that aggressively hounded her in the 2000s. But as Britney’s behavior was at times odd and at others, completely absent from public life, her fans began to question what was going on with her and the long-standing conservatorship. The podcast “Britney’s Gram” was born, in which hosts Barbara Gray and Tess Barker dissected everything the pop star posted on her Instagram page, searching for clues as to her real thoughts about the conservatorship. The #FreeBritney movement was also born around the same time, in which loyal fans took to the Internet and streets surrounding Britney’s court appearances to show their support.

The Elisa Lam story, however, is a much different, and tragic, set of circumstances, and it’s this I’ll focus on for the bulk of this piece. Elisa Lam’s death was made into spectacle following the bizarre elevator video footage that preceded her death, in which she darted suspiciously around the elevator and made unsettling motions with her hands and body. I’m going to say right here, at the outset, that the LAPD and the coroner ruled her cause of death as accidental and exacerbated by the fact she wasn’t taking all of her medications for her bipolar disorder. This case was truly a tragedy, and on a personal note, I was upset the Netflix documentary focused more on the spectacle of Internet sleuths over the chance to have a real, hard conversation about mental illness.

But, Netflix went the way of the Internet sleuths. After the video of Elisa in the elevator went viral, numerous individuals, vloggers, and YouTubers latched on, determined to beat the LAPD to the punch and solve what they immediately believed was a violent murder. The Internet sleuths pieced together anything they could find, including falsely blaming a musical artist named Morbid for the crime, just because he made death metal music and had stayed at the Cecil Hotel one year before Elisa ever stayed there. You can read more information about their search in this vein here, and Morbid thankfully did not succeed in taking his own life after the cyberbullying he received from these individuals. From there, the Internet sleuths took everything too far, even going so far as to blame Elisa’s death on a government conspiracy involving a tuberculosis outbreak on the neighboring Skid Row that happened right before Elisa showed up at the Cecil. In their view, Elisa was a biological weapon.

But it was when Elisa’s autopsy was made public that the Internet sleuths really doubled down. The autopsy directly contradicted what they had come to believe about the case, namely that it was not a murder, but rather, a tragic accident. Following the release, the sleuths took to their vlogs and said things like, “I’ve spent hours and hours investigating this, and I completely disagree with the coroner’s report” (says a man who has never examined the body himself). “Just because there were no marks on her body doesn’t mean it wasn’t foul play”; “For the online community this just meant there was an overarching coverup between the LAPD, the coroner, the general manager of the Cecil Hotel, and the employee who found the body”; “I’ve never read anything that said somebody having a bipolar episode would act like this.”

The Internet sleuths’ response to Elisa Lam’s autopsy is reminiscent of the famous New Yorker cartoon that says, “let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence.” So often when we speak of the current backlash against experts in many Western countries we (rightly) focus on things like environmental science, climate change, medical experts, and the COVID-19 pandemic. While Internet scholars, myself included, have long eschewed the idea that online practice should ever be thought of in terms of pathology, I’d like to talk about one specific “ism” here — solipsism. Solipsism essentially means it’s impossible to know something outside of yourself, so if you haven’t experienced it, or if you haven’t read it, you’re less likely to believe it.

At the start of the last decade, accusations of narcissism were thrown every which way at Internet practices, practically surrounding selfies and women. But as I and numerous other scholars have argued, narcissism is not only an incorrect term to describe online practice, but it is also an incredibly gendered, heteronormative, and racist cultural accusation. The Internet isn’t about obsessive self-love. Instead, in the fragmented information environment and filter bubbles we put ourselves in, solipsism becomes the cultural ethos. If it happens outside of my echo chamber, I don’t buy it.

But docuseries like The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and Don’t Fuck with the Cats demonstrate just how deep and wide this phenomenon goes, as well as the more troubling intersections of solipsism, sleuthing, and more — as scholar Stef Aupers argues, our current era, often dubbed “late modernity” by scholars, is characterized by a backlash against experts precisely because individuals feel let down by larger social structures and institutions and turn to a “trust no one” type of attitude.

Internet sleuths thrive within the “trust no one” environment. When individuals latch on to a particular case and find similar individuals, typically over the Internet, communities are born in which an echo chamber is formed around the idea. It seems no one can tell these individuals anything otherwise, because they are actively working together for the benefit and good of a situation that institutions have let down. Social media exacerbate these tendencies through speed, connection, and their hyper-discursive and affective natures, meaning that which tugs at the heartstrings and deep beliefs have the potential to be the most successful.

If this sounds like the QAnon conspiracy theory to you, you’re spot on. Scholars and pundits have long categorized QAnon as a racist, anti-Semitic, group of like-minded conspiracy theorists who dissect every possible piece of information made available to them for breadcrumbs and potentially hidden meanings. It largely makes something out of nothing, and as promised and expected things don’t happen, the goalposts continuously move to account for the non-events. I’ll leave most of the QAnon discussion to coworkers and fellow academics who focus specifically on alt-right politics and media, but run-of-the-mill Internet sleuths who focus on things like Elisa Lam or Britney Spears use many of the same strategies for analysis and finding information (though, it should be apparent by this point that the #FreeBritney individuals are much less toxic about their sleuthing than the Elisa Lam individuals and QAnon).

QAnon and the Internet sleuths surrounding Elisa Lam and Britney Spears are all part and parcel of a larger cultural moment, in which distrust is the common denominator. This is by no means an accident but a result in which individuals have routinely been let down or abandoned by macro-level social structures (disclaimer: this is not an apologist position for QAnon, but an assessment of the larger media and cultural landscape). As such, individuals turn to each other and the plethora of content afforded by social media. The infoglut and deluge of content mean the digital terrain is ripe for constantly trying to sort through information and find clues.

There is also a strong fandom component to all of these instances. Fan studies scholars have long been at the forefront of digital technologies and how fans were some of the early adopters of the Internet to coalesce around the thing they loved, or the fan object (another disclaimer: this, and nothing I’m about to say, is meant to pathologize fans or fandom, but rather, demonstrate how these practices have overlapped with fan communities). Here, the object of affection, or fan object, is Donald Trump (QAnon), Elisa Lam, or Britney Spears (my colleague at the University of Alabama speaks about this much better than I ever could). But the historical trajectory of fandom is important to not overlook in thinking through the practices of Internet sleuths. They feel a strong, affective drive for the cause they are pursuing (again, not an apology for QAnon. I have no patience for QAnon).

As an Internet scholar, something else that strikes me about Internet sleuths is their position in the broader digital media landscape. While QAnon has largely been banned from mainstream social media platforms, individuals are still able to discuss Elisa Lam and Britney Spears to their heart's content — and many times, do so for profit. Internet sleuths exist within a broader “attention economy,” in which successful content is that which attracts views, clicks, and likes. Internet sleuths capitalize on pain, suffering, and clue dissection for their own digital reputations and potential financial compensation from sites like YouTube. This is necessarily the ethical dimension to the problem, in which making something out of nothing can be beneficial or lucrative to outside observers.

So what do we do about Internet sleuths? They are by no means a new phenomenon, but their position has become louder, and with more material implications, in the twenty-first century. It is not necessarily a media literacy question either, since information sources are so fragmented, scattered, and hyper-partisan. It is, though, a question of approaching larger social structures. It is possible to realize one has been let down or abandoned by the world without necessarily thinking a larger conspiracy is afoot, and it’s at this intersection interventions must occur.

Additionally, and maybe this is just the Southern girl in me, it is a question of hospitality and respect. Britney Spears signed up to be in public life. Elisa Lam did not. But both women are deserving of dignity and respect. It also calls into question the divide Internet scholars have long eschewed — that the online and offline are entirely different. They are not. What happens online has tangible offline implications, and if there is a digital media literacy component to this at all, it’s that. In the case of Elisa Lam, it also involves respecting the fact a young woman died in a tragic way, and her family deserves for this not to be dragged out like this.

Internet sleuths are a symptom, not the problem. They exacerbate some of the most troubling cultural tendencies of our current moment, and we do need to reframe how we approach using Internet technologies to discuss interests. While the Internet sleuths in The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel recanted in the final episode, admitting they were far too conspiratorial, the damage had already been done. The best part of the Internet was that it brought like-minded individuals together who otherwise wouldn’t have met. When left unchecked, this became one of its worst parts, too.

Professor of digital media studies and technology. Into all things internet and dogs.