The social media frenzy which surrounds Nicola Bulley’s case has been described as “disgusting” by an expert. Areeq Chowdhury, Head of Policy, Data and Digital technologies at the Royal Society, said people taking selfies at the site where Ms Bulley went missing could have been seeking “personal validation” or were hoping to make money from online clicks.
The body of Ms Bulley, a mum-of-two from Inskip, Lancashire, was pulled from the River Wyre on Sunday after she was last seen on January 27.
Mr Chowdhury told MPs on Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee about a Royal Society report highlighting incentives – including financial ones – which lead people to take different acts, such as taking selfies at the scene of incidents.
Committee member John Nicholson MP referred to a news report which he said told of people “literally hunting for clues as tourists in the village” and included references to people taking selfies on the bench near where Ms Bulley disappeared.
Mr Chowdhury said part of the finding of the Royal Society report was that the scale of misinformation is perhaps not “as big as people might think reading the news”.
He added: “But also in that case, or other cases where people are acting upon misinformation, the actual content itself – so the false statement – is just one aspect of why someone would pursue some form of act.
“Another, so the selfie example you gave, might be personal validation that they want from being seen at a certain site or it could be a disinformation merchant trying to make money from clicks.”
Mr Nicholson suggested such people were enjoying the attention and feeling they were at the centre of a drama, to which Mr Chowdhury agreed.
The MP added: “Well you can see that’s deeply distressing for the family.”
READ ABOUT A WILD SWIMMER’S CLAIM NICOLA BULLEY DID NOT ENTER THE RIVER
Criticism of the social media frenzy comes amid claims social media algorithms which reward and encourage controversial content fuelled the wave of online interest in Ms Bulley’s case.
Social media experts have also highlighted the algorithms used to power certain online platforms and how they encourage users to earn views and engagement, creating a cycle where content creators are constantly looking for new and often controversial ways to keep users watching, which they argue helped spark the waves of conspiracy theory and amateur detective videos that appeared online around the case.
It comes after reports of a number of apparent content creators descending on the village of St Michael’s on Wyre where Ms Bulley went missing.
Former Twitter Vice President, Bruce Daisley, said: “The burden for the family must be overwhelming. In previous eras we might have witnessed rival newspapers competing for scoops on a daily basis.
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“Now it’s a far more overwhelming tsunami of social media sleuths posting TikToks to be catapulted to algorithm fame.”
Lancashire police had accused “TikTokers” of “playing private detectives” near the scene.
Det Supt Rebecca Smith said investigating officers were inundated with false information, accusations and rumours relating to the case.
She said: “Some of it’s been quite shocking and really hurtful to the family. Obviously, we can’t disregard anything and we’ve reviewed everything that’s come in, but of course it has distracted us significantly.”
Social media influencer Dan Duffy was fined under section 4 of the Public Order Act – fear or provocation of violence – after he was arrested while filming for his YouTube channel, Exploring With Danny.
Matt Navarra, an expert in social media, said this type of online reaction was not a new phenomenon, having previously been seen in missing person cases in the US.
He added that Ms Bulley’s disappearance was a major news story and therefore always likely to spark widespread conversation and engagement online.
However, he said the nature of online platforms meant a cycle was being created where the more views and engagement content creators received, the more incentivised they were to create more of it.
Mr Navarra said: “It feeds their appetite and behaviour to create more of the same content because there is a whole creator economy that sits behind this.
“So there are incentives in play that encouraged people to create this kind of content of the ‘whodunits’ and ‘solving the case’-type TikTok videos, and it is particularly unpleasant for those people that are on the receiving end of it if their family member or loved one has disappeared.”
He added that there was a responsibility not just on social media platforms, but also on the public and content creators themselves to think about the types of content they were consuming or promoting.
Mr Navarra said: “There is a responsibility on the platforms to try and reduce the reach of some of this content if they deem it to be highly inappropriate, and there is a responsibility on ourselves – as users – in terms of how much we are engaging and viewing this content, which is fuelling the interest in creating it.
“And I think the creators themselves have to have some sort of moral position.”
“But I also think we’re expecting too much from all three of those groups because there’s something about these algorithms and our fascination and addiction to this type of mystery and crime-solving type of content that will always push people into consuming it and creating it, and I don’t know the answer to stopping that.
“It is a modern-day problem that has real consequences for the families involved.”
TikTok has said it is deploying extra resources to reduce the potential spread of conspiratorial content about unfolding events – including either removing it or making it ineligible for recommendation to the platform’s For You page.
A TikTok spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with Ms Bulley’s family and friends at this difficult time.
“We have mobilised resources to monitor the evolving conversation about this case. We are taking action against violations of our Community Guidelines, including removing content and accounts, and limiting the reach of some content by making it ineligible for recommendation.”
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