Digital detectives: the benefits and risks of youth social media skills

December 2, 2022

A digitally literate generation 

Gen Z has more tools in its hands to address today’s challenges than ever before. As a subgroup of the ‘digitally native’ generation who grew up under the ubiquitous influence of modern information technologies, Internet access, on-demand information, and instantaneous communication are natural components of their lives. They see the physical and digital worlds as a seamless continuum, and are comfortable with collecting and cross-referencing many sources of information and integrating online and offline experiences. This unique world-view allows them to propose new ways of thinking about how technology can be effectively used. Today, this means revolutionizing the capability of social media platforms and the connectivity they enable. 

Unlike the early social networks like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook, many Gen Z communities are started by strangers with shared interests. Websites like Reddit, Twitter, and TikTok are not just places to connect with friends — they’re how young people as citizens get information and compare it to others’ experiences, either elsewhere in their country or on another continent entirely. This generation has more information at their fingertips than any other in history. They can use digital tools to research the most obscure facets of any topic they wish. Aiding them on their journey is their naturally embedded media literacy skill set, developed as a result of continuously sorting through an endless flow of information and evaluating its validity. Gen Z and its unique position brings a whole new technical capability to nearly all aspects of today’s society. 

Consciously or not, this exchange of information and online discourse helps Gen Z become more involved and invested in what’s going on in the world. TikTok users are combining their knowledge to crowdsource solutions for ongoing challenges, from creating accessible pill bottles for Parkinson’s patients, to encouraging diversity in tech. Among the most popular of today’s issues which Gen Z is tackling is true crime – an ever-increasing community of armchair detectives are sharing tips, possible sightings and theories by way of TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and more.

Digital detectives

“True crime offers both a respite from the real horrors of the world and a closer look inside them. Where older generations covered their faces with their hands and peeked through their fingers at the frightening images, Gen Z stares full on.”

With social media and the internet as a whole functioning as a digital extension of our physical lives, leaving footprints behind our passage through the net has become almost unavoidable. This digital trail of information does not only provide insight into our own lives, but also about those who interact with us in both the physical and virtual worlds. If collected and analyzed appropriately, these traces could be used as the largest pool of evidence for criminal investigations to ever exist, shedding light on individuals’ activities in the real and digital world. It is undeniable that this type of evidence will only increase in the future and thus requires specific attention, especially considering the enormous benefits that this could provide to criminal investigations. In fact, as a networking environment, the internet provides its users with new opportunities to connect and interact, by taking part in ongoing crowdsourced investigations of crime cases. As youth represent the most digitally networked population group and are the most skilled in creating, handling and sharing this new type of information, their engagement in crime-solving practices has been proven to be an incredibly powerful asset. The clearest example of this phenomenon has been the tragic case of Gabby Petito which catapulted youth and social media to the very center of the investigation. Although not the first example of civilian crowdsourcing in criminal investigations, Petito’s case showed the large impact youth can have thanks to their digital skills. 

The disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito virtually dominated social media from July to September 2021 which ultimately played a critical role in its heartbreaking resolution. As the case was unfolding, hundreds of young adults and teenagers took action to digitally investigate the Gabby Petito case, searching for information and clues from TikTok, the AllTrails hiking app and even her Spotify playlist which she had created and updated over the course of her trip. Combining this information with regularly provided updates from news outlets and media, these digital detectives provided crucial help to authorities by not only collecting new evidence, but also keeping the story trending on social media so that the case wouldn’t go cold.

Turning crowdsourcing chaos into actual intelligence

Possibly the best strategy to employ to tackle a large or difficult task is to de-construct it into smaller elements and assign its resolution to other people. In this case, social media and the internet represent a powerful resource to be used by governments for what is referred to as crowdsourcing: requesting aid on the Internet for a sub-task to be taken up by self-selected volunteers. Nonetheless, a refined strategy for the use and analysis of the large amount of information generated by this type of digital crowdsourcing still needs to be refined. If not coordinated, the intense flux of information coming in from amatorial digital detectives may in fact paralyze the legal department, counteracting its beneficial impact. This was the case of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, whereby information gathered by amateur sleuths on falsely identified several people as the potential bomber or bombers. In this case, the confusing search for digital evidence resulted in the opposite effect from that of the Gabby Petito case. In fact, without a clear direction from law enforcement, the uncoordinated search for information resulted in the widespread sharing of misinformed theories and false accusations, ultimately shared by news media to an even broader public. The ongoing crowdsourcing chaos was ultimately salvaged by the release of the two leading suspects’ pictures by the FBI, redirecting the internet towards a more targeted objective.

The events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing highlight that the availability of digital tools is as crucial as having the right educational strategy to harness the full potential of social media. In this context, developing educational policies based on media literacy is pivotal to prevent the spread of misinformation brought forth by the skilled yet naïve use of internet platforms. Although these types of interventions typically require some time before leading to measurable outcomes, when fully refined, they could lead to faster and better crowdsourced results obtained from a wide variety of fields. Similarly, these policies should be founded on fundamental ethical principles applied to the digital space, where the benefits and the side effects of negligence and wrongdoing are echoed infinitely among thousands of users from communicating platforms. If applied effectively, these could carry the reach of crowdsourced investigations to give a voice to traditionally silenced or marginalized communities (low-income, minority, disabled, indigenous, among others), which typically receive a disproportionately smaller share of the news coverage. Some initiatives of this type are already active today: for instance, the Black and Missing Foundation and Missing and Murdered Indigenous People regularly share flyers asking for help finding missing people via social media, and shows like the Crime Junkie Podcast aim to document and analyse forgotten criminal cases involving victims belonging to historically discriminated and marginalized communities.

A new outlook

While it is not always clear what the effects of these activities are on investigations, they certainly illuminate the intersection between social media, Gen Z’s fascination with current events, and their comfortability with digital skills. Digital technology is helping younger generations differentiate themselves from previous generations and affect society in unprecedented ways. The activities discussed above represent broader trends of ways that younger generations are distinguishing themselves socially and politically from their predecessors. They are more outspoken, and more aware of issues and events happening around the world. They are using their power to put pressure on public authorities, in this case law enforcement, to increase transparency of practices and make systemic change within the criminal justice system. They are unafraid to depart from the way things have always been done, and embrace the new possibilities that digital technology brings. 

This year’s Network Readiness Index, published by Portulans Institute, will focus on the theme of digital natives and their role in our increasingly digital world. For more perspectives on digital natives, join us for the global launch on November 15, 2022 at 10:00 AM EST. Registration for the free event is open at this link

Claudia Fini is a Senior Fellow at Portulans Institute and an Associate Researcher at the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights based in Rome, Italy, where she has analysed the ethical, legal and public policy challenges of artificial intelligence with a focus on human rights and sustainable development goals. She is passionate about trauma-informed policies and practices that will make the transition to a digital society safer and more effective for all populations. Claudia holds a BSc in Neuroscience from King’s College London and an MPhil in Criminology from the University of Cambridge.
Sylvie Antal is a Policy Research Associate at Portulans Institute with prior experience in digital privacy issues relating to minors and vulnerable populations, as well as in consumer education and technology for international development. Sylvie holds a bachelor’s degree in Information Science from the University of Michigan’s School of Information where she was a member of Tech for Social Good, and a Masters degree in Human-Computer Interaction.