The Nov. 13 discovery of four dead University of Idaho students shocked the community of Moscow, Idaho. But on TikTok, the murders jump-started the app’s true crime engine: a web of amateur sleuths who quickly went to work absorbing, spreading, and dissecting all available information.
It was six weeks before police arrested suspect Bryan Kohberger, a Washington State University criminology graduate student, leaving a vacuum of information. In the absence of any updates from police, some extreme TikTok accounts went as far publicly naming individuals as murderers without cause. And this week, as officials release more evidence, that machine has turned its blame on one of the students who survived that devastating night.
What we know about the night of the crime is this: Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Ethan Chapin, 20, were found stabbed to death in their off-campus home, after two of their roommates called 911 about an unconscious person. Following the 11:58 am call, police swarmed the scene. No motive or murder weapon were found, and officials gave few case updates during their six-week investigation.
But when an affidavit was unsealed last week revealing new details about the night of the murders, the true crime community was shocked to hear that one of the roommates saw the suspect in the house in the early hours of Nov.13, even though police were called seven hours later. Though the document was redacted in places, the affidavit spun the Idaho 4 fandom on TikTok into a frenzy — and another dark wave of victim blaming.
Referred to as D.M. in the affidavit, the surviving roommate said she saw someone in the home the morning of the murders. D.M. told police she woke up and opened her bedroom door several times throughout the night, including at one point when she thought she heard crying from Mogen’s room and a voice that said something that sounded like, “It’s OK, I’m going to help you.” When D.M. opened her door a third time around 4:17 am, the affidavit said she saw a 5’10” figure with bushy eyebrows “clad in black clothing and a mask.” The figure walked toward her while she stood in a “frozen shock” but walked out of the sliding door without interacting — at which point D.M. said she locked herself in her room.
Since the affidavit was released, videos using a hashtag of the roommate’s legal name have over 36 million views, with top clips questioning her motives and actions the morning of the murders. While TikTok users outside of the true crime community have come to the surviving roommate’s defense, thousands of comments still exist, saying her inaction was strange at best, and sinister evidence at worst.
Adam Golub, an American studies professor at Cal State Fullerton, says the prevalence of fictionalized crime series and films can draw people into real crimes with popular motifs and narratives they recognize from pop culture. Golub cites the death of Gabby Petito as an example of popular motifs — in this case, that of the missing white woman — driving online interest in real-life cases. Petito, who was 22 when she was killed by her fiance Brian Laundrie while on a cross-country van trip, became a hallmark example of how TikTok’s true crime community could have a real-world effect. Online interest in the young woman’s disappearance skyrocketed Petito’s case to national attention, even as the families of missing people of color criticized the focus on yet another missing white woman.
“[The Idaho murders] match the demographic of our typical true crime obsessions,” Golub says. “Four white kids murdered, three of whom are young women. And thanks to social media in the 21st century, audience involvement has become the norm. We’re seeing a shift from true crime that is produced by Hollywood to user-generated true crime content.”
The recognition that makes true crime fans relate to crimes they see in the news can also mean that people often make false assumptions about how they would react when placed in the same shoes, according to Golub.
“True Crime pop culture narrative is very compressed and we see action taking place pretty immediately,” Golub says. “We’re overly confident that if we had been there, we would have acted differently. But where’s our evidence for that?”
Following the intense reaction to the affidavit, the family of victim Kaylee Goncalves has come to the roommate’s defense, publicly urging people not to move blame away from Kohberger.
“That’s a natural thing for girls to freeze up and lock up and put themselves in a position of safety,” Steve Goncalves, Kaylee’s father, told local Idaho station KTVB. “I don’t hold that against them. I’ve already checked into that, could they have lived? You know, was it a slow bleed out or something? And it wasn’t. So, there’s one bad guy here that I have to focus on.”
“[She] is really young and she was probably really, really scared,” Alivea Goncalves, Kaylee’s sister, told NewsNation. “And until we have any more information, I think everyone should stop passing judgments because you don’t know what you would do in that situation.”
While some users have issued apologies for the various allegations, hundreds more videos making unfounded claims are still available to watch on the app. And at least five people—including close friend Jack Showalter, a victim’s boyfriend, a Door Dash driver, a food truck worker, and University of Idaho professor Rebecca Schofield—have all been accused by random accounts of murdering the students, with zero official evidence to back up the claims. One TikTok Tarot reader, Ashley Guillard, is currently being sued by Schofield, who claims Guillard posted at least 30 defamatory TikTok videos that damaged her reputation and caused her emotional distress.
“[Scofield] fears for her life and for the lives of her family members,” reads the lawsuit. “She has incurred costs, including costs to install a security system and security cameras at her residence. She fears that Guillard’s false statements may motivate someone to cause harm to her or her family members.”
When asked by Rolling Stone about the potential harm her videos could do, Guillard said: “I don’t care what harm has happened to Rebecca Schofield because it has nothing to do with me.”
But a lawyer for Scofield tells Rolling Stone, “Professor Scofield intends to speak through her pleadings in this case. We are aware that Ms. Guillard continues to make false and defamatory statements, and we anticipate that the media will not repeat those statements.”
On Dec. 30, another TikTok user who identified herself as Annika Klein, a family member of Showalter, a friend of the roommates, said 0nline sleuths had done real harm when they recklessly blamed her family of covering up the murders without evidence, posting their faces, places of work and addresses online. One video she refers to has been deleted, but the account responsible continues to post videos related to the Idaho murders case. Since the public scrutiny, Showalter and most of his family members have deactivated their social media accounts and could not be reached for comment. The owner of the account also did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
“I’m in this stitched video where they’re insinuating that my family — the Showalters — are politically powerful enough or would ever cover up a quadruple homicide,” Klein says with tears in her eyes. “I’m so happy that they have a suspect in custody because it’s justice for the victims and their families but it also gives all of the people who were falsely accused and dragged through the mud a chance to heal as well. We have received threats and harassment and we didn’t deserve that. Jack didn’t deserve that. And I hope in the future we can take away from this that this is not a game of Clue.”
Even since Kohberger was arrested and taken into custody by Moscow Police, many of the allegations against those close to the victims have continued. But there are also thousands of TikTok users who have begun to staunchly critique not only the victim blaming, but the app’s intense obsession with tragic cases like the Idaho murders.
“The fascination of true crime on social media is just an extension of the fascination about crime,” Jeffrey Lin, a criminology professor at the University of Denver, tells Rolling Stone. “We want to be able to control crimes that feel out of control. We have this intense desire to help and be heroic, and yet we have no opportunity to do so. Most of us are not able to become high-level researchers [for the FBI] but we can get on TikTok and look for [Brian Laundrie’s] van. This is just the fulfillment of the fantasy that’s been presented to us for decades.”
Golub calls TikTok’s true crime community a “wild west” when it comes to self-policing content, noting that many major true crime subs on Reddit have formalized official posting rules to prevent baseless conjecture and potential victim blaming. And individuals who feel like they’ve been slandered or lied about online can file defamation suits against specific accounts. But according to Golub, even if users abide by stricter guidelines or legal precedents, the complicated tension between true crime as both horrible events and a modern form of entertainment means situations like this will most likely keep happening.
“False, wrongful accusations, even wrongful convictions, are nothing new, but the speed and volume of those wrongful accusations seems to be exponentially increasing in this age of true crime on demand,” Golub says. “There’s already just as many people now defending [the roommate]…. saying she’s already a victim. But I do think in some ways we might be reaching a critical juncture. I think we’re at the verge of forcing ourselves to have more ethical conversations about the retraumatizing effect of all of this true crime.”