Where’s the line between helpful and harrowing for amateurs ‘investigating’ Nicola Bulley?

Written by Charlotte Colombo

The devastating case of Nicola Bulley has exposed the wider implications of true crime culture, says writer Charlotte Colombo. “It’s one thing to feel personally touched by a case and go out of your way to help,” she explains, “but identifying yourselves as ‘sleuths’, levying unfounded accusations against Bulley’s partner and combing through her family’s personal social media pages feels like another level.”

Imagine the unthinkable happened: a friend, a loved one – maybe even you – were at the centre of a national manhunt. You disappeared without a trace, with nobody knowing where you might be. As the days go on, and the hope of your safety fades, thousands of people are treating your suffering as a means of living out their Nancy Drew fantasies.

The family of Nicola Bulley, the 45-year-old woman who vanished while walking her dog, doesn’t have to imagine this at all. Two weeks after her tragic disappearance, this has become their reality. As well as being personally inundated with unsolicited tips, theories and ‘psychic’ help, investigative journalist Robyn Vinter reported how people were “bringing their kids” to the River Wyre, where Bulley is suspected of having fallen in, and asking locals to direct them to the bench Bulley was last seen to take photographs.

“Never before have I covered a case where I personally have been contacted unsolicited by so many conspiracy theorists, armchair detectives and psychics wanting me to investigate something or pass it to police on their behalf,” Vinter wrote in a tweet. “I can’t imagine what it’s been like for the police and Nicola Bulley’s family and friends.”

In just 12 days, a subreddit dedicated to Nicola Bulley has grown to 4,700 people, with users identifying themselves as ‘investigators’ and ‘sleuths’. It’s one thing to feel personally touched by a case and to go out of your way to help – joining in with organised search parties, for example, or sharing social media posts to raise awareness. But identifying yourselves as sleuths, levying unfounded accusations against Bulley’s partner and combing through her family’s personal social media pages feels like another level.

A level in which the ‘concern’ for Bulley seems less about her and more about your own ego. I’m a journalist – I know all about public interest  – but in these posts, there seems to be an undercurrent of morbid fascination, excitement even, that just doesn’t sit right with me at all. Virtual or otherwise, a community gathering to discuss the details of someone’s potential death and continually perpetuating misinformation is no different to the circling of vultures. 

The very idea that the case ‘doesn’t sit right’ with you and only you — not the trained, specialist officers in a position to uncover the truth of what happened to Bulley — is the highest, most morbid form of arrogance possible. Maybe these types of people comfort themselves with the idea that they’re doing it for the greater good; if you have a hero complex, you probably still think you’re helping people. But if casting yourself as the hero in your own Agatha Christie novel takes precedence over the wellbeing of Bulley’s family and friends, who have repeatedly requested privacy during this time, then it’s insulting to even pretend to care.

What’s most disturbing about the fascination surrounding Nicola Bulley, who is also the subject of a Facebook group with over 25,000 users, is that it isn’t an isolated incident but part of a recurring pattern not just in the UK, but all over the world. The most immediate comparison that comes to mind for me is Gabby Petito, a US woman who disappeared in September 2021 and, in the process, became an internet sensation. From TikTokers flocking to her last-seen locations to Redditors making ‘awards’ for posters in the Petito-dedicated subreddit, this case was true crime culture at its worst. But the saddest part is that, despite the rightful outcry over people exploiting Petito’s death for their own personal fantasies, this trend has continued.

When 12-year-old Ava White was tragically killed in Liverpool last year, I saw for myself how TikTok was awash with conspiracy theories suggesting that another girl in her class had orchestrated the murder, with dozens of users disclosing the child’s identity without any forethought for the implications it might have on her life. Then, there was Sabrina Prater, a newly out transgender woman who had people so convinced that she’d kidnapped people and was mistreating her animals, that she had her pet dogs taken away from her. In reality, Prater’s only crime was dancing in a partially renovated house and generally, according to countless social media users, just giving off ‘bad vibes’.

I could go on. But the pervasive fascination surrounding Nicola Bulley simply cannot be looked at in isolation – not when there’s a whole market of ‘unsolved’ murder cases that people can purchase online for their own entertainment or when yet another unnecessary dramatisation of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes explodes in popularity on Netflix despite his victims’ families explicit desire for their trauma to stop being exploited.

“What the very vocal online true crime enthusiasts fail to respect is that this case is happening in real-time, in the present,” Sally Baker, a senior trauma therapist, told Stylist. “Real living people are in the eye of the storm of their personal horror story. Using conjecture and hypothesising on these recent events to create entertaining content simply adds to the very real anguish of all those involved.”

It’s natural to wonder about cases like these, but theorising and debating online isn’t helpful to anyone. If you were to find genuine evidence or information relating to the case, the advice from Lancashire police is as follows: “Anyone with information which could assist our investigation should call us on 101 quoting log 0565 of January 30th. For immediate sightings, please call 999. You can also submit information at Public Portal (mipp.police.uk)”

Images: Getty

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