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Nicola Bulley is reported missing in Lancashire

Underwater search expert Peter Faulding travels in a RIB before using a sonar device to scan the bed of the River Wyre on 6th February 2023, as the search for missing Nicola Bulley continues

Underwater search expert Peter Faulding travels in a RIB before using a sonar device to scan the bed of the River Wyre on 6th February 2023, as the search for missing Nicola Bulley continues. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

On 27th January Nicola Bulley, a 45-year-old mortgage advisor and mother of two, dropped her children off at school in the village of St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, and began walking her dog along a footpath by the River Wyre back to her family home. Shortly afterwards, her dog was found alone and distressed by a passerby. Bulley had disappeared. Missing persons cases are common in the UK and at the beginning only the local press were interested. At the first police briefing on 30th January just a handful of journalists turned up, including Hollie Bone, the north-west news reporter for the Mirror. “It was Sally Riley, the [Lancashire] police superintendent, and about six journalists in the car park of the village hall,” recalls Bone.

The police had no leads and were adamant that there was nothing suspicious or criminal about Bulley’s disappearance, but the fact that they had set to work on the case so quickly seemed strange to Bone. With police resources stretched, it can often take several days for an investigation to begin. Yet the police were involved almost from the start. Bone pulled Riley to one side at the press conference and asked for some clarification on this. Riley told her that Bulley’s phone had been found on a bench by the river, and that it had still been connected to a work call when it was discovered.

Suddenly the case caught the public imagination – how could a woman vanish into thin air in the middle of a conference call? “It was that one fact,” says Bone. “Overnight it went from those six journalists to the world’s media being there.” It also turned what was a tragic missing person case into something else: a viral social media phenomenon. The mysterious disappearance of a photogenic mother of small children drew a global army of armchair detectives, who shared their theories on social media. Most were convinced that the police were hiding what was really happening. And they weren’t limited to the digital world. Dozens of citizen sleuths arrived in Bulley’s village to investigate the disappearance and video themselves as they did it.

A week after Bulley went missing, Bone retraced her steps along the riverside to the bench, which had now become central to the police inquiry. On the way, she says “I saw a guy in his sixties and he had a GoPro strapped to his chest. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, that’s really strange’. I was very conscious that he was watching me as well.” The man, an amateur detective, had already got into an argument with a local resident over what they saw as his disrespectful behaviour. “People were turning up and taking videos and selfies of themselves by this bench,” says Bone. “They were breaking and entering into people’s property to try and see if they had something to do with Nicola’s disappearance.”

On TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media app with more than 1.6 billion users, half of whom are under 30, Bulley’s disappearance became a live true crime show. As the days turned into weeks, and as the police fruitlessly searched the river, millions of people filled the information gap by dissecting the evidence released by authorities and posted by citizens. By the end of April, videos with the Nicola Bulley hashtag had accumulated more than 600 million views on TikTok. The overwhelming majority peddled conspiracy theories that Bulley had been murdered. Many pointed the finger, falsely and without evidence, at Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, who became central to the conspiracy theories, as well as at other villagers. Friends and family begging for Bulley’s return were falsely labelled “crisis actors” – people who are paid to portray victims in hoax scenarios.

Amateur psychics gave live commentaries, telling their followers they were convinced Bulley was alive, or that they knew where she was buried. One popular theory suggested that she was being moved around in a series of local underground tunnels, or kept in one of the derelict houses near the bench, which Bone discovered weren’t actually derelict but either occupied or being renovated. The tunnels in question had been inaccessible for years. But no amount of pushback by the authorities could quell the speculation.

Curious followers of the case were meeting for picnics near the bench, turning the scene, according to Bone, into “some kind of dark tourism hotspot.” On 8th February, 12 days after Bulley disappeared, Lancashire police were forced to issue a 48-hour dispersal order following “reports of individuals – from outside the area of St Michael’s – filming on social media close to properties.” Still more conjecture was stoked when underwater search expert Peter Faulding declared after his own investigation that Bone’s body was not in the river.

In the first few days after Bulley’s disappearance, her family had been happy to speak to Bone, keen to raise awareness via the press. But as the speculation became more lurid, the family and villagers stopped commenting. “There were a lot of journalists there and sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between who was an accredited reporter for a media outlet and who was just there for their own social media gain,” says Bone.

Amateur detectives now regularly broadcast their findings about active missing persons cases on TikTok”

The citizen sleuth phenomenon isn’t new. True crime has become a big business in recent years, fuelling the rise of video streaming services and the podcasting industry, thanks to the success of shows like Making a Murderer and Serial, both of which cast doubt on the police investigations into horrific murders. They spawned a whole new industry of true crime podcasts that were investigations in their own rights.

Amateur detectives now regularly broadcast their findings about active missing persons cases on TikTok and YouTube. A similar frenzy followed the disappearance of American Gabby Petito, who went missing in 2021 while travelling the US with her boyfriend. Online sleuths managed to pinpoint the location of their missing van, which led to the discovery of Petito’s body. Her boyfriend, and sole suspect in her murder, later killed himself.

Although some have pointed to the success of this form of open source intelligence gathering or OSINT, especially in long forgotten cold cases, others fear that real life tragedies are being monetised in a macabre form of entertainment with no guardrails. “There’s no emphasis on these big social media giants to ensure that [the content they are hosting] is fact-checked properly,” says Bone. “Anybody can start talking about true crime. They can say whatever they want. We [traditional media] would face defamation, contempt [of court] issues.” In Lancashire, the police were finding it hard to keep up with the flood of tips and theories about Bulley from the public. At a press conference on 15th February, Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith, lead investigator in the case, told reporters that “You’ll no doubt be aware that TikTokers have been playing their own private detectives” and that “false information, accusations and rumours” had “distracted us significantly” in pursuing the case.

Bulley’s body was discovered on 19th February in the river, a mile downstream from the bench where her phone was found. She was located not by police but by a self-described TikTok ‘psychic medium’, which only added fuel to the conspiracy theories. Bulley’s devastated family criticised the press for some of its coverage, which at times seemed to mimic the speculation on TikTok. “It saddens us to think that one day we will have to explain to [Bulley’s children] that the press and members of the public accused their dad of wrongdoing, misquoted and vilified friends and family,” they said in a statement. “This cannot happen to another family.”

Three months after Bulley’s body was found and a month before the inquest into her death begins, the TikTok conspiracies have not ended. This, Bone believes, is partly down to the actions of Lancashire police. Three weeks after Bulley disappeared, the police revealed that she had been classified as a vulnerable person due to an alcohol problem connected to the menopause, which explained why they launched a search so soon after her disappearance. The police were heavily criticised for revealing this personal information, but Bone believes that if they had publicised it earlier, there would have been less space for the conspiracy theories to flourish. She still regularly gets comments on social media suggesting that she herself was part of something underhand. “One person was trying to suggest that the press are involved in a cover-up with the police because we’re a corrupt media… that we’re helping the police to hide the truth about what happened to Nicola,” she says.

The Bulley case has fallen off the mainstream media agenda. But Bone believes that it won’t be long until another real life mystery goes viral. “This will happen now with any case, whether it be missing persons or a murder investigation,” she says. “If something captures the attention of the British public we are going to face this same issue of people wading into the debate, into the investigation.” There’s a danger, she says, of reducing tragedy to entertainment fodder. “This isn’t fiction. This isn’t a TV programme…. This is real life,” she says.

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #50 of Delayed Gratification

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