Web sleuthing & paranormal investigating. Just because we can, should we?

17th February 2021. Reading Time: 9 minutes General. 1870 page views. 0 comments.

After watching the Cecil documentary on Netflix, the concept of web sleuths and the culture behind it stuck with me. When your hobby becomes an obsession, you lose perspective. When you focus in on conspiracies, you forget about the real people involved. This applies to us in the paranormal field as well.

Like everyone else, I am very much into a good Netflix binge.  For me, it started with Making a Murderer as probably with many others.  It was the 'cool' thing to do to stay up until 3am each night binging and waiting to see what would happen on the next episode.  It didn't seem to matter that a young woman had tragically lost her life, we were more worried about someone being framed because that is what the documentary wanted us to believe.  What followed were social media discussions, YouTube videos, podcasts of people presenting their own theories and doing their own detective work based on public records.  Documentaries are done with a particular narrative in mind, and suddenly we are all looking for more answers.  This kind of activity has been around much longer, but because of these documentaries and a resurgence in the interest of true crime, it now has a much larger audience ready to participate and become web sleuths.

Web sleuths is an internet community forum that was launched in 1999 that focuses on crime and missing people cases.  Members are sometimes verified as administrators if they have official credentials in law enforcement or DNA analysis etc, however, anyone can participate.   The community has proved to be helpful in many cases, particularly helping to identify miss person cases.  You may even remember recently a group of men which included an Australian mathematician cracked the cipher of the Golden State Killer, something they had been working on since 2006.  While there is an official community, it seems anyone can act as a web sleuth and contribute with blogs, posts, youtube videos, and the like. 

The Cecil documentary on Netflix focuses in on this and takes a rather unexpected turn than how I thought this documentary would be.  While many walked away saying they wouldn't accept the facts and would keep searching for answers for what happened to Elisa, I walked away thinking of it as a cautionary tale to the role the general public play in such cases.  It also made me question my own role in the paranormal community because you are dealing with real-life people and real-life deaths.  Where is the line?

It feels harmless to us to publicly say statements on social media after watching a show such as, "I think it was the brother or the best friend must of murdered them", but did anyone think about what such statements to do to the actual family of the victims or even those being accused?  It is also a very different thing having a discussion with your friends about it or an office water cooler chat than making a video for the whole World to see and asking people to act and get involved.  Look no further than Morbid, the poor innocent artist whose life has been ruined because of an internet sleuth irresponsibly and without any facts linking him to the murder of Elisa Lim.  It didn't matter that he had stayed at the hotel a year prior.  It didn't matter he wasn't even in the country or at the hotel when she was murdered.  He posted morbid songs about death, violence and played up to the goth image of worshipping the devil, etc, someone found he posted a video of him staying at the Cecil hotel, and that was enough for them to make the accusation.  In an instant, his life was ruined.  The internet community turned on him abusing him at every turn ruining his career and personal life to the point he couldn't take it anymore.  He even had the police investigate him.  Should we be leaving the detective work up to the detectives?  It was later revealed that certain information was withheld from the public to protect the family who was already dealing with the death of their daughter.  No one knows what happens behind closed doors, and the question becomes do we have a right to?  Now of course I feel like I have to say here that no one has the right to commit acts of violence against another person behind closed doors and I also don't think certain acts should be swept under the rug either.  Victims need to be heard and the perpetrators held responsible, but do we as the general public have the right and knowledge to throw these accusations around on such a public platform based on just an assumption or even a gut feeling?  There is a difference between publicly talking about a case and presenting the facts compared to making damaging assumptions that are not based on fact, and this is where the problem lies.  Assumptions.  

I understand why the web sleuth concept is addictive.  You get embroiled with the story and feel like you are a part of it.  You have good intentions.  Maybe you can help?  Maybe the other millions of people that have looked into it have missed something that you might find?  As paranormal investigators, we are often researching old murders, suicides, family history, death, secrets tied to the locations we are in.  When new information is found or we can validate it against the evidence we may have received, there is honestly no feeling like it, so I get it.  What we have to ask as investigators though, is while we may retrieve this information, do we have the right to broadcast this publically?  Years ago I was involved with investigating a property for a public event.  It was a beautiful property with a lot of history.  The owners however had one request.  There was to be no mention of a century-old family tragedy because it had brought much grief to the family and while it was on public record, it was not something that the family wanted to be advertised or openly spoken about because it was not how they wanted the deceased family member to be remembered.  Now in this case, you had someone here advocating for the family so of course their wishes were followed.  What about the families that don't have someone to advocate for them?  Does that mean we can just go in and say what we want to say about anyone and bring up their family secrets for the World to see on YouTube and Facebook?  While it may be something that is on public record, does that give us the right to dig it up and bring further pain to the family?  Now I myself have been guilty of this too.  This is not me accusing people of doing the wrong thing.  It is me opening up a discussion that maybe we need to think about things a little better and understand the influence and impact our words have.  Can we do better?   There have been also some occasions where research has been able to help give a voice to our past and highlight some amazing individuals that would not have had happened for the research so there is certainly a place here for historic storytelling.  In fact, locations depend on it.  There is a place for it, but there is also a line.

One of the most controversial areas in the paranormal for example is the videos that come out after a celebrity dies.  Literally, within hours you can always count on at least one YouTube claiming to have spoken to and made contact with someone who has passed through their spirit box.  This is often widely condemned by the paranormal community as being disrespectful, however, it still happens every time and will continue to happen because the industry is not regulated and likely never will be so we are only left with our own moral compass which is different from one person to another.  Different opinions, beliefs, and experiences mean you can never get a solid majority to agree on something unconditionally.  I know many of you may agree with me and others may not, and that is all OK.  We need to have these kinds of respectful discussions.

There is a venue here in Melbourne that used to run paranormal investigations.  They no longer do.  The reason is that people would attend the tours and start making assumptions about the 'ghosts' they were contacting.  It is something you see happen a lot on investigations.  While it may not be on public record you hear people saying, "I am feeling that someone was murdered here or this person did this to another person."  All they have to back it up is the information they believe they are detecting psychically or receiving a word through the spirit box.  It is not a crime a person was ever charged and we have no way of knowing if it ever happened apart from someone's gut feeling.  We have to ask, Do we have the right to make such accusations on a public level?  These accusations happened on a particular investigation at this venue, but the problem was, there was a direct family member of the 'spirit' being accused of such things in attendance.  They were deeply offended by accusations that were not true and long story short, after many complaints, there are no more investigations allowed at this location for that very reason.  It was after being made aware of this that I know I completely changed my approach.  Even on investigations, I am running, when people start going down this road of making accusations, I gently steer them away to a new train of thought of I abruptly change the subject (they may not even know I am doing it.). There has been one occasion where I have flat-out shut someone down and told them not to make accusations.  It is not something people do intentionally or to be malicious.  I know I have done it in the past as well, particularly in my early days.  We become so disconnected during a paranormal investigation and focus on the spirit or the story that we forget about the real-life people left behind that we could be hurting in the process by saying such statements.

I am not telling people to stop writing about cases or investigating the paranormal or producing videos because it is a part of what I do as well and as I said above there is an important place for historical storytelling.  All I am saying is we (and this applies to me as well) need to understand how powerful our words are.  Understand that while we may be disconnected from the idea of death as paranormal investigators, there are family members involved.  Even if a case is 100 years old, there are still families involved.  Most importantly, never go public with information or accusations without solid facts.  Do you even need to go public? If it is something you enjoy doing or looking into, I know of a lot of people who do different kinds of work on old cases but you would never know about it.  Some pass whatever information they have onto police and others just keep it for their own research and that is that.   

Overall, it may feel like a bit of a game with the thrill of the chase, but take a breath and remember, there are real people involved.  

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