Nicola Bulley case: Scourge of amateur detectives in the TikTok Age isn't going away any time soon – Aidan Smith

Social media speculation, misinformation and conspiracy theories are causing serious real-world problems

With the report published into the police investigation, I’m thinking that might be the end of the speculation. Silly me. Rev up YouTube and there’s the urgent inquiry: “Can YOU accept the Nicola Bulley outcome???”

An armchair detective – and the tragic case brought out scores of them – wants another go at it. With a fake Christmas tree in the corner of the room and fake flames burning in the hearth, he theorises into a large professional microphone for six-and-a-half minutes. His site has 72,000 followers and, as of yesterday, the latest post had been viewed more than 7,700 times.

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Can WE accept? Hang on, is this man part of a police watchdog organisation with a legitimate interest in the findings? His branded baseball cap and hoodie would suggest not. So is he a member of Nicola’s family or circle of friends who had to endure so much sensationalist, scurrilous and hurtful rumour after the mum-of-two disappeared in January?

No, he’s just an ordinary guy who believes, as do millions right now: “Everyone’s entitled to MY opinion.” All of them have been emboldened by the great and wonderful democracy of the internet. There, they can spout off as they would in the pub and it’s not just the fellow drunks slouched nearby who will half-listen.

Questing truth-seekers

Ping a message on WhatsApp that you’ve got it on very good authority that the Dublin school-gates attacker is Algerian and, with the incitement to “kill all foreigners”, a good-going riot will unfold, which by the end of it last Thursday night required the most police ever mobilised in the city.

In this brave and bonkers new world, everything’s been levelled up for the lunatics. Social media has given them the voice they craved, or in many cases didn’t actually know they had or hadn’t realised it was so easy to join the belching, puking clamour.

You can become a hobby journalist, a questing truth-seeker because, well, the professionally qualified ones just can’t be trusted anymore, can they? You can be that part-time sociologist, that pop psychologist, that weekend professor of criminology, cracking cases beyond the knowhow of those bungling bobbies.

Or… how about action cameraperson? When a man gets into difficulty in water, when he’s not waving but drowning, do you toss him a life-ring? No, you press “record” on your phone, capturing the desperate drama as it happens, then wait for the bidding war. Your footage on the ten o’clock news, credit in the bottom right-hand corner, would beat all those sunsets Colin from the pub sends in to his favourite weathergirl.

Ace in the Hole

Earlier this month, there was such an incident in the River Ouse at York. Police, who were able to complete the rescue, were shocked that not one bystander did anything to help. That’s a terrible story, but should we be surprised by it?

Life isn’t lived unless it’s filmed now, and clearly that applies to death, or the very real prospect of it, as well. Notable events – football matches, rock gigs – aren’t experienced anymore, they’re filmed and popped on X right away with the hidden message: “Here is a great goal/singalong anthem. I don’t actually get to enjoy these moments myself because I’m too busy recording them for posterity. I am that selfless content provider. Please follow me.”

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A movie comes to mind here: Zelig, the Woody Allen mockumentary. However nondescript you are, and no matter your modest position in the scheme of things, it’s just possible, with a bit of luck, to insert yourself into history.

And an even older and even better movie is evoked by the Nicola Bulley case. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is a vicious satire on the yellow press starring Kirk Douglas as a washed-up hack bumming around local newspapers who manipulates the story of a man trapped underground so that it grips the nation. People drive hundreds of miles to be close to the drama and a carnival springs up at the site.

Madeleine McCann’s disappearance

In Nicola’s Lancashire village, there was a similar invasion of gawpers and ghouls – tragedy tourists. The difference being that while in Ace in the Hole the crowd were content watching and waiting for developments, many who descended on St Michael’s on Wyre were, according to the police, “playing private detectives”.

While the local force have been criticised for their handling of the case – in particular for releasing details of Nicola’s mental health which served to fuel the speculation – it can hardly have helped when there were so many TikTok tecs blundering around with spades and torches and, of course, phones so there could be live-streaming as they rooted around in buildings, one of which wasn’t quite as abandoned as initially presumed.

By the time Nicola’s body had been recovered, videos with her name in the hashtag had been viewed more than 387 million times. But some of the social media sleuths who descended on the site may have bristled at the tag “amateur”, including perhaps the woman who admitted that when Madeleine McCann disappeared she’d flown to Portugal to look for the girl. Then there was the man arrested for stalking residents while en route to what he doubtless hoped would be more luridness for his lens with Blackpool being bombarded by freak storms.

One or two may be well-meaning, many more are bampots – but some are raving egomaniacs. Inspired by the glut of cop shows on TV and in particular the true-crime reconstructions, they burn with the belief they can crack the case, uncover the truth. Meanwhile, our YouTuber shows no sign of letting it lie, with the anniversary of Nicola Bulley’s disappearance just a few weeks away…



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