true crime

The cost of our true crime addiction.

Our collective appetite for true crime content is insatiable. 

We obsess over certain cases, intent on uncovering who the perpetrator is, the evil committed, and every detail in between. We also wonder deeply about the victim. What were they like as a person? Who did they love? What were their final moments like?

It often comes from a well-intentioned place, where society is hoping for answers and justice. But there are times where it crosses a line, and snowballs into something ickier - a true crime addiction if you will.

There are two recent cases that spring to mind. One is the disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito.

Her name will be familiar to millions around the globe, the young American woman's image was shared far and wide on the Internet. 

Watch: The moment the FBI confirmed they had found Gaby Petito. Post continues below.

Video via CBSN.

In late 2021 there was a major police hunt for Petito's boyfriend, following her disappearance. Prior, the pair had set out on a cross-country road trip in a van across America, documenting their travels in vlog-style videos posted online. But as her account grew silent suddenly and her family couldn't get hold of her, it resulted in serious concerns for her welfare.


Petito, 22, had been murdered by her boyfriend, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, who after evading police for weeks was found dead by suicide. But amid the search for him and Petito's body, interest in the case grew.

A whirlwind of theories and potential sightings were generated online. 

Many self-proclaimed true crime buffs figured they were the key to solving the case, rather than law enforcement. 

Millions of people 'investigated' the case in real-time, amassing hundreds of millions of followers and even more comments debating the contents of their latest 'clues.'

It's a trend many true experts are frustrated by. 

Dr Robyn Blewer is a lecturer at Griffith University and is the Director of the Innocence Project based within the University. As part of her role, she takes a keen interest in how criminal cases are presented to the public, and how everyday people engage with them.

"There are blurred lines in the case of Gabby Petito and our interest in true crime stories," says Dr Blewer.

"There was a desire to get justice for Gabby, who we rightly assumed had been the victim of a domestic violence murder, but that desire to get justice was fuelled mainly through online sleuthing."

Just a small selection of the real-time TikTok content surrounding the murder of Gabby Petito. Image: TikTok.


The second case that comes to mind for Dr Blewer is the Idaho College murders.

In November 2022, police were dispatched to a home near the University of Idaho following a 911 call. They found the bodies of students Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Ethan Chapin, 20.

Each had been stabbed in their beds on the second and third floors of the home. None of the victims were sexually assaulted, none of their belongings were stolen, and there was no sign of forced entry to the home. Two of the victims' housemates, both of whom slept in bedrooms on the first floor, were unharmed and, according to police, had been unaware of the brutal crime that took place above them.


It took weeks for someone to be arrested over the murders, a date still not set for 28-year-old Bryan Kohberger's trial.

Throughout the subsequent investigation, police were forced to publicly combat rumours about the case that circulated online and on social media. It's in examples like these, where there's not immediately a clear-cut suspect, that online sleuthing can reach a particularly dangerous point, says Dr Blewer.

"At the time it was a complete mystery, an arrest and charge took weeks. From what I've researched, it was an awful situation for the town because a lot of innocent people were wrongly accused of committing the murders. They weren't accused by police either - they were accused by people posting online," she notes. 

There's another aspect of our insatiable true crime appetite that's worth mentioning -  and it's related to the appearance of the victim(s) and perpetrator(s).

"In Gabby's case, but also the Idaho murders, these are people who had already posted plenty of content about their lives, and they were objectively attractive. The media had all they needed to piece together a story, as did true crime content creators," says Dr Blewer.

"They were also all white. The same year that Gabby Petito was reported missing, so were half a million people in the US. It raises questions about why we as a society tend to focus more on certain victims rather than others. But it also makes space for us to have these conversations and make sure we do more in the future to ensure all crimes are investigated properly. We've seen this play out in Australia as well, when it comes to First Nations victims receiving less attention in comparison to non-Indigenous Australians or white Australians."


Ultimately, the murder of Gabby Petito and the separate murders of the four Idaho students spurred podcast episodes and YouTube videos, people thinking they had the answers to what had happened. Countless TikTok videos were posted, quick accusations made over who the culprits were.

These cases even made their way into group chat conversations, people pouring over every detail they could possibly find about who the victims were and what happened to them in their final moments. 

It was the epitome of over-saturation. 

The Idaho college murders case was quickly spun into viral true crime content online too. Image: TikTok.


We saw the downfalls of the Internet's true crime addiction in the death of British woman Nicola Bulley too.

The 45-year-old was found deceased in a river in January this year. But before the coroner ruled it an accident, there was mass social media theorising that foul play or mental health struggles played a role in her death.

The amateur sleuths bragged they were smarter than the investigators, and began accusing innocent people in Bulley's life. The true crime fandom had been wrong. 

This isn't a clear-cut discussion though. There's nuance to our true crime fascination.

Dr Blewer can think of multiple examples where true crime podcasts or advocates in this space have extensively researched a criminal case and found holes in the reasons for a conviction - meaning a wrongly-convicted individual has been set free.

The mentality of 'power in the people' is warranted. Of course, it's 99 per cent of the time not the sleuths who solve the case, rather it's the detectives. But the interest in the case can put pressure on officials to find answers sooner rather than later.


Where things start to get complex is when we lose sight of the humanity behind these 'viral' criminal cases, says Dr Blewer. Although the intent may be to educate and get the word out, the result can be turning a crime into voyeuristic entertainment.

"Often people forget there are real victims, real families, and real communities involved in these situations. It can be hard to tell the motivations of people online posting true crime content, whether there is genuine interest to find justice, or a desire for the notoriety of solving the murder. We're at risk as a collective of becoming desensitised to it all."

Coverage is important. It's just about not falling into the trap of sensationalising a horrific story.

It's great that people are interested in the criminal justice system as well, says Dr Blewer. She particularly feels this way as the Director of Griffith University's Innocence Project, where students, lawyers and academics work collaboratively (pro bono) to assist innocent people who have been wrongly convicted.

People are always interested in the macabre. It's a tale as old as time. And two things can be true at once - there are both positives and negatives to our deep interest in crime.

But when the cons outweigh the potential pros, it's clearly time for us to hold a mirror up to ourselves.

Feature Image: Facebook/Instagram/Mamamia. 

Do you have children aged under 13 years? Take this survey now to go in the running to win one of four $50 gift vouchers for your time.