Social media spreads troubling rumors in University of Idaho student-deaths investigationPublished at | Updated at
MOSCOW (Spokesman-Review) — It was a Saturday morning when the roommates at a baby blue three-story house just off the University of Idaho campus pulled on their game-day attire and posed for a handful of snapshots.
“One lucky girl to be surrounded by these ppl every day,” Kaylee Goncalves captioned the photos as she posted them to her Instagram.
In typical Gen Z fashion, almost every event from the first day of class to sorority formals landed on the Instagram or TikTok pages of the young women who lived at 1122 King Road. Posting on social media is as easy as breathing for most college students.
All those posts, however, began to be viewed in a different light after the deaths of three of the roommates and a boyfriend early Nov. 13.
With little information from investigators, internet sleuths picked apart the victims’ posts and storms of speculation followed.
“Rumor loves a vacuum,” said Ben Shors, chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Production at Washington State University. “So often what we elevate are controversial voices opposed to fact, especially when facts are so limited.”
RUMORS CIRCULATE ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Days passed, and the public still didn’t know how Goncalves and Madison Mogen, both 21 and best friends, had died. Same for Xana Kernodle, 20, and her boyfriend, Ethan Chapin, also 20. There were no arrests. No suspects. No weapon. No answers.
Social media didn’t wait. Rumors circulated about who did it – even going so far as to posit that one of the victims did it. Others blamed drugs. None of it was true, with officials finally sharing all four students were stabbed by someone who remains at large.
The Latah County coroner said the wounds were caused by a large knife, and that the students’ bodies were found in their beds. They were likely killed in their sleep. One had what were described as defensive wounds.
The hurt caused by cruel misinformation quickly grew to the point that the family of the victims spoke out amidst their grief.
“There is a lack of information from the University of Idaho and the local police, which only fuels false rumors and innuendo in the press and social media,” Ethan Chapin’s father, Jim Chapin, wrote Wednesday morning. “The silence further compounds our family’s agony after our son’s murder. For Ethan and his three dear friends slain in Moscow, Idaho, and all of our families, I urge officials to speak the truth, share what they know, find the assailant, and protect the greater community.”
POLICE CHANGE NO-RISK NARRATIVE
From the day of the killings through Wednesday evening, investigators said the attack was “targeted” and that there was no risk to the community. That shaky narrative changed after Moscow Police Chief James Fry addressed the public Wednesday for the first time since killings.
“We cannot say that there is no threat to the community,” Fry acknowledged, while maintaining the attacks were targeted.
Many students simply left early for Thanksgiving break. Others sought refuge or comfort online. But the slow drip of information has done little to temper speculation as people continue to post theories.
“Social media could be powerful,” Shors said. “We’re seeing people use social media as a way for community comfort, as a way to create community online in this really scary situation.”
It can also be dangerous. Some people from as far away as South Carolina created Facebook groups to share theories about the case that quickly garnered thousands of members. People anonymously posted the faces and names on Reddit of twenty-somethings who knew the victims, accusing them of the horrible crimes.
Media outlets nationally and internationally reported on the case, but with them came tabloids and their sensationalized version of the story.
While addressing the public and putting out a timeline of events, investigators have continued to remain tight-lipped about the attack and why they believe it was targeted.
GROWING INVESTIGATION IS HARD TO MANAGE
“Initially, there’s a tendency to just kind of be focused on or try to conduct business like you normally would have done,” said Gary Jenkins, Washington State University police chief and a former Pullman police chief. “At some point, you have to step back and realize it’s more than you can try to manage.”
When working a case like this, the scope of the investigation can rapidly grow, Jenkins said.
“You want to make sure that when you interview witnesses or suspects, that you know that they’re only telling you information that they personally know rather than what has been reported on the news,” Jenkins said.
Investigators also don’t want to give out information that might cause the suspect to destroy evidence, Jenkins said.
The Moscow Police Department called in the Idaho State Police and eventually the FBI. By Friday night, dozens of investigators were working the case.
As both the scope of an investigation and public attention grow, Jenkins said it’s important to stay in front of misinformation, addressing it where it’s being spread.
“We just try to get information out as soon as we can on the social media platforms,” Jenkins said. “If we see misinformation, to try to respond to that.”
Sometimes, though, trolls are just looking for an argument with police.
“We have to just let some of those go,” Jenkins said.
STOPPING MISINFORMATION CAN BE HARD
Addressing misinformation can be futile, Shors said.
“There has been such a decline in our trust in so many institutions, whether it’s the media or the government or politicians or police,” Shors said. “I don’t know how effective they could be in the environment.”
Sometimes, fact-checking a rumor also elevates it, Shors noted.
While social media comes with a host of problems, it can also be a valuable investigative tool.
Fry said investigators are reviewing the victims’ cellphones, including their social media accounts and other circulating social media posts that could help them.
“We are using every means available to us to learn different pieces,” Fry said.
He said rumors brewing on social media could prove to be useful.
“The reality is one key piece that we don’t have might come in through one of those sources, so it’s always helpful to have as much information as possible,” Fry said.
A Twitch livestream from a local food truck is one of the last sightings of Mogen and Goncalves, according to investigators.
Police can use college students’ propensity to take constant photo and video footage to their advantage, Mogen’s aunt, Katie Blackshear said.
“The police need social media that is not Facebook,” Blackshear said. “They police a college town in 2022 and need to communicate with college kids.”
While police set up a phone tip line, young people don’t like to make phone calls, Blackshear noted.
Investigators set up an email line Friday that she hopes young people will use to share their pictures and videos with police if they were in the same location as the victims.
Anyone with information related to the case can email email@example.com or call (208) 883-7180.
Spokesman-Review reporter Garrett Cabeza contributed.