True Crime Doesn’t Turn Us Into Detectives, No Matter What We Might Think

Confession time: I’m completely addicted to the new Netflix documentary about Madeleine McCann.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about true crime documentaries like this. On the one hand, they can raise awareness about ongoing issues and uncover injustices. But let’s be honest. Most people aren’t watching to learn more about the world’s injustices. These shows allow us to put on our Sherlock Holmes’ hat from the comfort of our sofa, and that feeling can be utterly addictive. In the process, these series often obscure the actual victim in favor of “the mystery,” and embolden us to develop theories and trust in our own crime-solving skills far beyond reality.

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann opens with a recap of events leading up to, and immediately after, Madeleine’s disappearance from a Portuguese holiday villa in May 2007, but the show is not interested in dissecting these details and coming up with a theory of its own. Instead, as the series continues, it focuses on the global reaction to the disappearance, and we see the media’s terrifying, life-wrecking power, as it builds up the McCanns as near-martyrs, and then tears them down again.

But the documentary also looks at a new kind of media, one that empowers us, rather than just journalists, to theorise and condemn and tear people down. In the documentary, we see the McCanns being verbally attacked by strangers by traditional means, like literal hate mail, but we also see the growth of this new phenomenon called social media. We see the hateful comments grow beneath newspaper articles, until some newspapers are forced to turn them off. We see the discussion developing on this new site called Facebook, and then another new site called Twitter. And we see that it isn’t a discussion, but a witch hunt.

The show speculates that this is partly due to it being a new form of media, where people react to every post they read as if it were news or fact. But it’s also an example of quite the opposite — people attempting to be analytical and solve a story they actually know little about, as they might always have done, but in a public forum where they can share their thoughts with likeminded people around the world and receive support for their interpretation. The tabloid newspapers started the ball rolling with wild rumors and speculation, and people continued the work online. It’s a terrifying early example of how the social Internet allows sofa investigators to gather scraps of information on a case, “solve” it, and condemn someone, without every coming into contact with anyone involved.

It’s the phenomenon that led to Reddit “solving” the Boston marathon bombing, when forum users shared myriad details about a man who was actually innocent. It’s the phenomenon that encourages people to doxx and attack strangers, or to believe insane conspiracy theories. And the longer mysteries remain, the more people become convinced to form their own interpretations, even if they are based on thin or faulty information.

True crime documentaries feed into this desire for answers, but they offer us false promises. We, as viewers and media consumers, know nothing. A documentary only provides us with some of the information, no matter how thorough they are, and it is not our place to stalk the people involved to bolster up our theories, as some people did and still do after the release of true crime series like Serial.

The combination of these documentaries, the story-hungry media, and the existence of social media empowers and emboldens us. It makes us feel personally invested in the mystery, but we remain detached from the real emotional consequences of the crime that occurred, while also making us feel smarter than law enforcement than anyone actually involved. Although its crime-solving thrill might seem harmless, once we take it online, form communities around it and react to those involved based on our conclusions, it can spiral out of control.

I have to admit that elements of the McCann documentary make for an excellent story, just as Serial made for an excellent podcast. The timing of the plot twists, the mysteries and inconsistencies, watching the cadavar-scent dog investigate the apartment, knowing that it’s going to bark, and then getting that horrified thrill of confirmation when it does, in fact, find the scent of a body and starts barking and barking. But it is not a story, and life is not as neat and tidy as we’d like to believe. The barking of a dog does not crack the case wide open. People act strangely when they’re in shock or have experienced trauma. Someone must be lying, because things don’t quite add up, but we can’t know who, or even if it’s a malicious lie, or the result of flawed memory — something else that is inevitable when trauma occurs.

As we hungrily devour the details of these “dramas” and set about trying to solve them from our detached spots on our sofas or while bored on our commutes, we can forget that very real people are experiencing very real suffering. Yes, it is important to raise awareness of unsolved cases or miscarriages of justice. But none of us are Sherlock Holmes. It can be compelling and addictive to ponder over the questions raised in these cases, but we can’t ever conclude that we know all the answers, when those far more involved do not.

What do you think?

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