"Immediate red flags," Taylor Agajanian says of her initial reaction to the serial killer rumor shared and side-eyed in Seattle over the weekend.
On Saturday, the Seattle Police Department and King County Sheriff's Office refuted scuttlebutt that they were investigating a series of connected murders. But before the authorities weighed in, the Misinformation Age's version of a game of telephone played out on social media—and riled up a researcher at the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public, our resident think tank for curbing false fodder.
Like countless others last week, the 31-year-old Agajanian received a screenshot from a friend with a haunting message: Several women in their 30s, after nights out on the town, had been abducted, murdered, and posed identically south of SoDo. A similar warning ascribed to a local bar manager prompted a minor service industry freakout, and a post from popular Instagram account Dubseatv (following: 157,000) further stoked fears, while citing precisely zero sources, that King County detectives "have been notifying locals about a serial killer in Seattle."
In light of law enforcement's denials, fact-checkers from the Associated Press and PolitiFact have declared that report false; Meta has blurred Dubseatv's related posts on Facebook and Instagram (on Twitter, naturally, the falsehood remains in all its glory).
But as a misinformation researcher, Agajanian didn't need to wait for law enforcement's statements to start poking holes in a dubious narrative.
First there was the medium. People were sharing screenshots of Instagram stories of text messages and emails—Russian nesting dolls of posts that obscured the rumor's original source and any trail of accountability. Not a good sign.
Then there was the message itself. Most versions hewed to identical or alarmingly similar scripts, cut-and-paste jobs made for sharing online. Agajanian and other misinformation aficionados refer to them as "copypasta." The claims in this one seemed "unbelievable," Agajanian says, but also totally familiar to her. "I am used to seeing hoax emails that target women's safety, that are very stranger danger–oriented." One falsely asserted women would know they were targets of human trafficking if they found weird items on their cars in shopping center parking lots.
Despite all the alarm bells going off in her head, Agajanian knew she needed to work off more than a hunch to debunk the serial killer rumor. So she started conducting "lateral research," a fancy way of describing something anyone can do: opening more tabs and googling for corroborating news stories even as she was still processing the spooky message on her screen.
But Agajanian couldn't find anything to support the rumor's central claim that multiple women were killed in a disturbingly similar fashion in or around SoDo. She did confirm one report of a female body found on the side of state Route 509 near Burien on October 7. Still, with no other accounts of crime (or data) even remotely resembling that case, it only made her feel more confident about what was really going on. "It started to come together for me that it was probably one thing that actually did happen cultivating a kind of tall tale around it." Myths wrapped around a grain of truth can often travel further, after all.
The rumor claimed the other murders hadn't hit the media yet because local law enforcement agencies didn't want to "entice the creep." But this preemptive rebuttal didn't make sense, Agajanian noted, given the Sheriff Office's call for help in the 509 investigation. Why would they alert the public about that crime but not the others?
Commenters pushing the rumor had a counter for this one, too: Well, you can't trust the police. Agajanian gets why people are hesitant to put their faith in the honesty of local cops. But while researching misleading anti-vax posts on social media for the Center for an Informed Public, Agajanian saw how skepticism derived from systemic harms (see: medical racism) allowed rumor-mongering to fester. "Institutional mistrust contributes to the stickiness of these friend-of-a-friend claims," she says.
Once SPD and the King County Sheriff's Office delivered their repudiations of the serial killer posts, some on social media pointed to the story of a similar rumor in Kansas City that local police called "unfounded," only to find that there may, in fact, be some truth to it. Others noted the recent arrest of a serial killer in Stockton, California. Even more brought up a Netflix show about notorious Jeffrey Dahmer.
The country's obsession with true crime probably helped fuel this rumor, Agajanian says. Yet she's more interested in the false perception that news outlets were in cahoots with law enforcement to keep the other murders under wraps. "This seems to be a case study in that a lot of people in the community do not trust the local media."
It's also a referendum on many locals' news literacy. Dubseatv, perhaps the most prominent social media account spreading the rumor, describes itself as "#1 in Seattle Entertainment [bullet] News [bullet] Culture." Yet its posts are almost entirely unsourced. (Email and phone messages left with Dubseatv for this story were unreturned.)
On its Instagram post about the serial killer, some of the most "liked" comments supporting the rumor belonged to the Instagram account of Raz Simone, the hip-hop artist and subject of a bombshell report published Sunday by KUOW and The Seattle Times. "Since 2017, at least eight people—six women and the parents of two others—told [detective William] Guyer and Seattle police that Simone entangled women in a multistate sex trafficking scheme," the report from Ashley Hiruko and Rebecca Moss said.
The irony of Simone's Instagram comments were not lost on Agajanian. She understands that those spreading stranger danger rumors may just have their community's safety at heart, "but it misconstrues how trafficking and femicide and domestic violence actually take place, which is usually that somebody close to the person has killed them."
Ultimately, this rumor carries its own torment "because that actually ends up hurting and making it harder to help the victims of actual trafficking and femicide later down the line," Agajanian says. "Nobody knows or believes that those are the people who are actually being harmed."