Internet: British police warn of amateur investigators on Tiktok

Two men dig around in a grove, others climb over barrier tapes.

Internet: British police warn of amateur investigators on Tiktok

Two men dig around in a grove, others climb over barrier tapes. And everything is filmed and uploaded to the web, mostly on Tiktok. The search for a missing woman has kept Britain in suspense for weeks - but also lured numerous onlookers to the sleepy village of St. Michael's on Wyre.

"Social media users have been playing private detective," said police Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith. This recently announced that a 34-year-old had been arrested because, among other things, he had filmed inside a barrier - the man had traveled 210 kilometers extra to observe the search.

The behavior of the gazers is a "game changer"

"We had weirdos there, scavengers who pushed open doorknobs and stared through windows," community leader Michael Vincent told the Sunday Mirror newspaper. Resident Oliver Fletcher told the BBC that strangers filmed his house and that his grandmother didn't dare go out. For former police chief Bob Eastwood, the behavior of modern-day onlookers in the case is a "game changer" that changes everything.

Flashback: On January 27, a 45-year-old takes her daughters to school, then walks her dog by the River Wyre. She logs on to a business call on her cell phone - and never logs off again. Dog and phone are found, but there is no trace of the woman. Divers search the river several times. The longer the search lasts, the louder the speculation and the more onlookers flock to it. Rumors are circulating on the internet. Eventually, the police are forced to release extremely private details from the missing person's medical records. After a good three weeks, the woman's body was found in the river.

In the village, there is great anger about the modern gazers who stream their search for clues live. But the interest, especially on Tiktok, was enormous. Within three weeks, videos with the name of the missing person as a hashtag were viewed 270 million times. The platform emphasized: "We do not tolerate bullying or harassment on Tiktok and remove content that violates our guidelines."

Can social media be useful in investigations?

Not everyone was angry at the uninvited helpers. "These reports could lead someone to come forward with real information," a mother told the BBC. But others warn of a great danger. Ex-cop Eastwood compares social media to a "big beast greedy for information". "People invent things, experts are mixed up who have no evidence."

The police union (GdP) takes the same line. "Hobby detectives with a penchant for social media activities are more likely to disrupt police investigations than to support them effectively," said Alexander Poitz, deputy GdP national chairman of the German Press Agency. In addition, social media posts could trigger false suspicions and expose bystanders to stalking and danger.

The excitement is a bit comparable to the case of Rebecca, who has been missing since February 2019. The image of the 15-year-old Berliner was omnipresent at the time, the circumstances seemed mysterious, and the case was publicly discussed for weeks. In Great Britain, it was the first time that the whole country was also glued to a search on social media. On the other hand, amateur detectives are already a well-known phenomenon in the USA. Self-proclaimed experts flock to YouTube and Tiktok to comment on criminal and missing person cases.

Many want to be smarter than the police

Most of them are about recognition and about increasing their self-esteem, as the psychologist André Ilcin told the dpa. With their videos, they proved that they were very close to something important - and hoped for a few seconds of fame. There is also the fear of missing something important. This feeling is particularly widespread on social media - there has long been a name for it: FOMO, Fear of Missing Out. The Internet plays a major role in this, said Ilcin, a member of the Professional Association of German Psychologists (BDP). Everyone can find themselves in the huge resonator of the World Wide Web, no matter how crazy their ideas may be.

"In some cases, there is a shift in identity," Ilcin said. Such people acted out as police officers, believing themselves to be smarter than the investigators, partly driven by quick fixes in TV crime shows. "Long-term study of detective films replaces neither criminal police training nor the years of experience of experienced investigators," warned GdP Vice Poitz. Psychologist Ilcin referred to the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect: your own self-image does not match reality. Instead, the hunting instinct is awakened, and one's own participation serves as a kick.

It should be clear that the police will have to adapt more to Tiktok detectives in the future. The GdP appeals to reason: "Let the police do their job. Why? Because they can."