Webwatch: Social media algorithms fuelled online interest in Nicola Bulley case, experts suggest
Social media algorithms that reward and encourage controversial content fuelled the waves of online interest in the Nicola Bulley case, experts have claimed.
Questions remain about the case of Ms Bulley (pictured), with both the police and media also facing criticism after her body was discovered more than three weeks after she disappeared.
Ms Bulley’s body was pulled from the River Wyre in Lancashire on Sunday after the 45-year-old was last seen on January 27.
Lancashire Police had received widespread criticism for releasing some aspects of Ms Bulley’s private life into the public domain, while her family had questioned the role of the press during the investigation and accused the media of “misquoting and vilifying” Ms Bulley’s partner, relatives and friends.
But 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 following reports of a number of apparent content creators descending on the village 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.
“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.
Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith said investigating officers have been “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 given a fixed penalty notice under section 4 of the Public Order Act – fear or provocation of violence – after he was arrested while filming for his YouTube channel, called Exploring With Danny.
Social media expert Matt Navarra said this type of online reaction was not a “new phenomenon” having previously been seen in missing person cases in the US, and 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.
“It feeds their appetite and behaviour to create more of the same content because there is a whole creator economy that sits behind this,” he said.
“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 said.
Mr Navarra 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.
“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,” he said.
“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 was deploying additional 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.
“Our thoughts are with Ms Bulley’s family and friends at this difficult time,” A TikTok spokesperson said.
“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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