I'm strolling along the river in Saint Michael's on Wyre, a small Lancashire village, along the same path that Nicola Bulley, 45, took just before she vanished. When deciding to look into the case themselves, amateur social media detectives also follow the same path.
They have been increasing in number as a result of rumors, conjecture, and conspiracy posted on social media and seen by millions of people who have never even been close to this village.
A video of one of Nicola's friends pleading for her safe return had been recommended to me the day before on my TikTok feed. However, someone else had added the words "crisis actor" in large font, which refers to a person who has been paid to act out a tragedy or scenario.
Due to my interest in them, TikTok's algorithm had flooded my "For You Page" with videos that speculated about Nicola's disappearance. However, in recent days, these have intensified and have expanded to include conspiracies that contend the disappearance was staged by the government or other evil forces. This is why I was told to watch the video of friends "acting.".
As I've previously discussed, conspiracy theorists and trolls prey on victims of terrorist attacks, such as the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, going so far as to track them down offline to see if they were inventing their injuries.
Although the circumstances of this case are very different, there has been a sharp rise in rumors and theories, which has led to statements from Nicola's family and police who issued a dispersal order.
The media has given this story a lot of attention, with front-page coverage every day. But I'm interested in comprehending the scope of the social media frenzy.
I run into Jack and Stevie just a few meters away from the bench where Nicola's phone was discovered. The Darlington builders, who are 20 years old, have been erecting fencing nearby. But now that the day is over, they tell me that the social media frenzy has driven them to the river bank.
According to Jack, TikTok is the only way to do it. "After watching one video about it, I decided to continue learning more about it. As a result, you find yourself stuck in the never-ending cycle of searching, which grows increasingly interesting. ".
Likewise, Stevie. He is interested in "differing scenarios and what people think.". In his opinion, rather than declining, social media interest in the case is still gaining momentum.
With their phones at the ready, they leave to explore the outside of a abandoned outhouse along the river bank. Neither of them uploads their own videos, and they reject the wilder conspiracies. However, they assert that the social media posts are compelling.
I run into other people who came here for the same reason over the course of the hours I spend near the bench. During the summer break, a father and son are filming while they explore the scene while they are there. A second couple shows up with two husky dogs, telling me they bought them to search the fields close to the river. .
Traveling tourists to crime scenes and online true crime sleuths are nothing new. But a sizable number of people appear to be drawn in by the social media frenzy, particularly with regard to TikTok.
When I checked TikTok on Friday, February 17, videos discussing Nicola Bulley's case since she first vanished and using her name as a hashtag had amassed more than 270 million views. In contrast, content using these exact words on other significant social media platforms has received less attention.
In the same time frame, I found that posts on Instagram with the username "Nicola Bulley" received close to 115,000 interactions (likes, follows, and comments), and "reels" had over 158 million views. Videos I found using the same term on YouTube have received a combined 3.3 million views, while my analysis of mentions on Twitter and their potential reach indicates just under 21 million views.
There were over two million interactions on the roughly 8,500 publicly available posts I found on Facebook, where it's difficult to gauge views. There are over 81,000 members in Facebook groups for Nicola Bulley, many of whom share rumors about the case.
This week, Lancashire police singled out "TikTok-ers" who they claimed had "been playing their own private detectives" at a news conference. Det Supt Becky Smith, who has worked for the police for 29 years, claimed she had "never seen anything like it" and that social media speculation had hampered their investigation.
Videos on TikTok that I found have received more than 1 point 5 million views and question whether Nicola Bulley is real or whether her friends and family are acting out the situation. They also raise the possibility that Nicola is a stager and that the case is being used as a "distraction" by the government.
On the other significant social media platforms, these same conspiracies haven't drawn as much attention. I discovered eight publicly accessible tweets on Twitter that refer to "crisis actors" and government distractions and have received more than 65,500 views, according to the site's own statistics.
When I searched for them using the same terms on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, I only found two public posts endorsing them, each with only about 150 interactions.
Hundreds of TikTok videos pushing these false claims, many of which Caroline claims she has seen and some of which have been recommended to her, according to Caroline, a local resident.
Some of the things they point out in the videos, she says, "make you wonder if maybe they're on to something.".
Then, after a rude awakening, I ask myself, "Why on earth would they actually be doing that? What would they be acting for? What are we being distracted from?".
Three days after Nicola vanished, she first received recommendations for TikTok videos. She has been hooked ever since, and her own work, which was once focused on dancing with her children, is now interspersed with clips of her speculating about Nicola. She's eager to participate.
In one, Caroline denounces an untrue rumor regarding arrests related to the case. While trying to enter a home on the opposite side of the river from where Bulley was last seen, TikTok influencer Dan Duffy is seen live-streaming on the app in another video that the author shares.
She tells me, "Being a mum myself, I think it's nice to see people sharing in the hopes that it might just trigger someone to come forward.".
"I also think it's great that people are attempting to find anything that might point to Nicola's whereabouts. ".
Due to the numerous rumors that have circulated about the home in Duffy's video, police claimed to have searched it three times.
Duffy was inspired to keep going and even call out Nicola's name by comments on his live stream.
Duffy was later charged with a public order offense and fined by the police. He was also banned from TikTok. .
TikTok issued a statement saying that its "thoughts are with Ms. Bulley's family and friends at this difficult time" dot.
According to the statement, "TikTok does not tolerate bullying or harassment, and we remove content that violates our policies.". Furthermore, it disclosed that it was "deploying additional resources to reduce the potential spread of conspiratorial content about unfolding events by disqualifying it from recommendation to the For You feed.".
The local dog walker who requested anonymity due to potential online backlash claims that Duffy's livestream outraged him. According to him, social media has caused people to visit the site.
He describes large crowds and TikTokers filming the location of the disappearance, including them bringing kids and attempting to scale fences.
Hearing [these conspiracy theories] is very challenging. Not TikTokers, he says; the police should look into it.
Locals who have become frustrated have turned to hiring local security to try and keep people away from their property.
Not just social media is at issue here. Rumor and conspiracy can only thrive in an environment of misinformation, shocking or horrifying news, and mistrust. For how they handled the case, the police have come under fire recently.
There is also a great deal of media interest. Online rumors frequently make their way into newspapers and brand-new websites.
Then there is the impact of the widespread disinformation boom.
Research conducted for the BBC by King's College London indicates that the pandemic may have opened a "gateway" for theories debunking tragic events and labeling people as "crisis actors.".
At a time when trust in authorities and institutions is low, a significant number of people who are highly engaged on social media and familiar with this conspiracy jargon are presented with a disappearance, creating the ideal storm.