It is difficult to imagine the pain that must come with loving someone who is missing. It’s a pain that Nicola Bulley’s family and friends no doubt never expected they would know, until it came for them last month.
We all know how Bulley’s story ended. Last week Lancashire Police confirmed a body found in the River Wyre was the mum from St Michael’s on Wyre, who went missing while walking her dog at the end of January.
Bulley’s loved ones now have a new grief to navigate and endure. But while they come to terms with their earth-shattering loss, anyone who followed her story through the weeks she was missing cannot forget the circus of speculation that followed, or the ghouls who compounded her family’s suffering.
Within days of the police starting their search, TikTok sleuths descended on St Michael’s on Wyre. The BBC’s disinformation and social media correspondent Marianna Spring reported how, as she walked along the river, she met a father and son visiting the scene of a missing woman’s disappearance as a half-term holiday activity – camera phones in hand.
Spring met a group of young builders who had clocked off work early to go and investigate, poking around a derelict outhouse on the edge of the riverbank. And then there was the couple with two husky dogs in tow, explaining that they’d brought them along so they could conduct their own search.
What followed were videos of vigilante investigations and voyeuristic commentary on the case from armchair detectives uploaded online. As someone who has made a conscious decision to try my best to ignore TikTok’s existence, I managed to avoid the onslaught of content posted on the social media site, but Spring’s report cites some horrifying statistics. As of 17 February, three weeks after Bulley went missing, TikTok videos discussing the case, and using her name as a hashtag, had accumulated more than 270 million views worldwide.
One YouTuber was fined for a public order offence, while another TikTok account showed a video of a man digging up woodland.
The voyeuristic speculation attached to the case was unprecedented. Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith of Lancashire Police, who led the investigation, said she had “never seen anything like it”.
The hysteria spiralled out of control. Everything Lancashire Police left unsaid as it conducted its investigation – a completely standard approach for a police force looking for a missing person – members of the public and the press saw as a gap to be filled by conspiracies and fantasy.
And then came the decision by the police to release deeply personal information about Bulley’s private life – a step it says it was forced to make to stop rumours from circulating, but that has attracted widespread criticism. The force has now asked the College of Policing to investigate its handling of the case.
The statement released by Bulley’s family last week was both excoriating and heartbreaking, particularly the line that one day they will have to explain to her two young children “that the press and members of the public accused their dad of wrongdoing, misquoted and vilified friends and family” as they lived through their darkest hours.
Bulley’s family must be left to grieve in private. But we can only hope society reflects on how it behaved as they suffered.
Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy
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