Should this behaviour be encouraged?
By CJ Sommerfeld, Staff Writer
The new series follows the unravelling of the seemingly unexplainable disappearance of Vancouver’s own Elisa Lam.
Welcome to the mass media generation: a time when nearly anyone can post anything for all to see. This wide-spread encouragement of individual perspective has also enabled internet users to live out occupations that previously required a degree—such as investigative journalists. The uneducated online hobbyist version of an investigator is called a cyber sleuth. Netflix’s new four-part docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, showcased some of these internet detectives, giving them as much airtime as they did the actual investigators. Should they have? Does this encourage web sleuths to continue investigating and drawing uneducated conclusions on their own while simultaneously harming the case?
The new series follows the unravelling of the seemingly unexplainable disappearance of Vancouver’s own Elisa Lam. In 2013 she had travelled to California alone, but while staying at the infamous Cecil Hotel a few days into her trip, she mysteriously went missing. Lam disappeared without leaving any indication as to where she had gone, the most telling was an eerie elevator surveillance video. Soon after the Vancouverite’s disappearance, the LAPD became stumped as to where she could be. In an anguished attempt of asking the public to help locate Lam, they made the video public. Immediately, many internet users jumped on the story, sharing uncanny coincidences, and creating conspiracy theories surrounding her death.
As the documentary unravels, most of these cyber sleuth theories are proved wrong. The viewer is pulled every which way, watching interviews with the different internet detectives and YouTube journalists explaining the synchronicities which have convinced them of their theories. At one point, one of these investigators finds a YouTube channel of Mexican death metal artist Morbid. On it, they find a video which he uploaded at the Cecil Hotel in 2012. The sleuths overlooked the fact that he had stayed at the hotel a year previous to Lam and continued scouting for clues that would link him to Lam’s disappearance.
Sure, his music presented gruesome themes; he had Ted Bundy propaganda in one of his videos and had visited the same hotel which Lam went missing, but do these few coincidences point to murder? Unfortunately, they were proof enough to thousands of non-forensic pathologists—he killed Lam. An unfortunate movement began where thousands of internet users accused him of murdering the young Vancouverite. In the documentary, he explains that the extermination of his YouTube account as well as constant hate messages that he was receiving pushed him to attempt take his own life—and luckily he was unsuccessful. Despite pressing on with life, he discontinued making music, an industry which he had been involved in for 15 years previous.
Lam’s body was found 19 days after it went missing and the toxicity results showed no foul play. The murder accusations stopped, and the sleuths dismissed Morbid without apology or acknowledgment of their massive mishap. Is it not platforms like this Netflix docuseries that are encouraging misinformed web detectives to continue with their “investigating”? Can we not draw parallels between the non-investigator-investigators who were drawing conclusions and creating conspiracy theories surrounding Lam’s death, with those who are doing the same with COVID present day?
Millennials have been labelled the “Participation Trophy” generation. This label criticizes what some perceive as a lack of hard work among this generation. All you need to do is show up; no need to put in the effort—that trophy is waiting for you at the end of the game regardless. Some say that this aide-memoire reminds millennials that there is no need to work hard to receive what an individual who has put in the effort earned. Web sleuths are the perfect example of this reminder.
Ultimately, the documentary is about a young bipolar woman who accidentally drowns during a manic episode. Following her death, the toxicity results showed that she had been under-medicating. This caused her mania to have played out to the extreme as it had, resulting in the hallucinations which ultimately lead to her death. Should the series not have spent more time exploring issues regarding mental health?
Am I not the only one who finds it demented that the series glamorized the cyber sleuths that obsessed over Lam’s death, regardless of their erroneous findings? I hope that the other viewers recognized that these web detectives did more harm than good within the case. I am not sure if they genuinely believed that they were doing Lam justice or were just scouting sinister content to gain YouTube views. Regardless, in having provided a platform to further share these detective’s thoughts on the case, does this docuseries not encourage this sort of behaviour?