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Social media ghouls and a “riot of speculation”

People gathering near the bench where Nicola Bulley’s phone was found. Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty

The “carnival of hysteria” around the disappearance of Nicola Bulley reveals the “very worst of human nature”, says Zoe Williams in The Guardian. Everything the police said – or left unsaid – sparked a “riot of speculation” from vigilante investigators and social media sleuths. Crime scene tourists took ghoulish selfies on the bench where Bulley’s phone was found. TikTokers posted videos searching a derelict house opposite the bank where she was last seen. A YouTuber who filmed himself bragging about poking around nearby gardens at night was fined by police, which he also filmed.

The “narcissistic urge” to get close to big news stories has always existed, but this time, “wildly amplified by social media”, weirdo theories rapidly spiralled into viral conspiracies. As a result, police were “swamped with nonsense non-leads and interference”. Mainstream media outlets didn’t help matters, inviting people to recreate Bulley’s final moments with interactive maps. When lead investigator DSI Rebecca Smith held a press conference to shoot down the most persistent online myths about the case, newspaper columnists like Amanda Platell and Petronella Wyatt took the opportunity to critique her outfit and physique. Tragedy is “never pretty”, but the turmoil around this case forces a “very specific reckoning”. This is what it looks like when public faith in police is at rock bottom, and social media rewards the “unlovely traits of attention-seeking and hysteria”.