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How 'Wild West' Of Crime Speculation Harms Innocent People

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

Brent Kopacka’s death was hard enough on his loved ones before strangers branded him a murderer. The Purple Heart recipient was shot dead by a SWAT officer in December after an overnight standoff at his Washington state apartment. His best friend, Darin Dunkin, was haunted by the belief that things might have gone differently if Kopacka, 36, had got the care he needed after suffering a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan. Online sleuths spread baseless claims that Kopacka was involved in the November stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students. Scores of posts on TikTok, Facebook and YouTube tied his name to the crime. The accusations were improbable. By the time they gained traction online, police had arrested a suspect they said acted alone and whose DNA was on a knife sheath found at the crime scene, reports the Washington Post.

“Now, not only is he dead and I’m never going to see him again, but it’s like all these other people are ruining his legacy,” said Dunkin, 36. “Not only do I have to mourn my friend, but I got to defend him, too.” Across the internet, true-crime aficionados have become obsessed with all sorts of unsolved mysteries and crimes, poring over victims’ social media pages and analyzing news reports to crack cases. The amateur sleuths post their theories in YouTube videos, podcasts and online chats, where some gain large followings who share the material more widely. Sometimes their snooping generates viable tips. In Stockton, Calif., police credited community members who shared tips on a Facebook group with helping identify a suspected serial killer last year. In many other cases, reckless theories emerge — shoving unsuspecting people into the national spotlight, tarnishing reputations, and inviting an onslaught of harassment and threats. The accused have few means of fighting back. Suing podcasters and content creators can be costly and typically results in little monetary relief. social media platforms are widely protected by federal law. "We've reached this critical juncture now where we have to decide, what is the role of these armchair investigators?” said Adam Golub, a professor of American studies at California State University at Fullerton. “Are they entitled to certain information and facts? What are we going to do about this kind of Wild West of speculation?”

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