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CSI:Reddit and the Case of the Cecil Hotel

CSI:Reddit and the Case of the Cecil Hotel

image: Netflix


Two weeks ago, on a Sunday night, my husband and I decided to watch the new Netflix docu-series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. Four episodes later, he and I looked at each other and simultaneously agreed that that could have been a one-hour-long episode. Reporter and critic David Friend describes it best: “The buzzy four-part Netflix "documentary" is part of the streaming platform's damaging subgenre I call bingebait, or docs that withhold and manipulate truth to keep you watching multiple episodes.”

The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is made up of two stories. One story is about a missing Canadian girl called Elisa Lam. The other story is about the dark, notorious past of Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel. For the first three episodes, descriptions of the hotel aim to convince you that something strange and horrific happened with Lam and that her death was somehow related to the location. 

However, a jarring tonal shift happens between episodes three and four. While the third, action-packed episode was all about conspiracy theories and internet sleuths, the fourth episode revealed Lam’s mental health struggles, and the fact that she lived with bipolar disorder, information that hadn’t been mentioned before. The story, whose central focus was meant to be Lam's mysterious disappearance before later being discovered drowned, felt more about internet sleuths and conspiracy theories, which Netflix seems to be willing to indulge. 

The Reddit detectives

The messageboard detectives whose evidence the show leans so heavily on are essentially YouTubers and Redditors who act like the internet police. The internet sleuths were given a lot of screen time in the show, which focuses on how they used their "shrewd skills" to come up with some outlandish theories.

The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel shows how internet users spent weeks, if not years, dissecting Lam’s elevator footage, digging through her social media accounts, and establishing connections where none exist. They are shown making outrageous claims like “Lam is part of a government conspiracy and she was sent to LA to spread Tuberculosis”, or that she is already dead and it is actually her ghost in the video or that either she or a killer was re-enacting the plot of the movie Dark Water, because of the similarities between the movie and Lam’s death. One person also suggested that someone was outside the elevator who was trying to kill her because they noticed another foot in the video. The most intriguing one was when people claimed Lam was part of something called the “elevator game”. The elevator game comes from Korea and the idea is that when someone enters an elevator alone and presses the buttons in a specific order, they enter a new dimension. The show lacks the conviction to dismiss these claims, instead giving them space to spread further.

Since the show's release, Redditors have been busy discussing the case and possible theories explaining her death, maintaining that there was foul play involved in Lam’s death.

image: Reddit

A creepy elevator video released by the Los Angeles Police Department was the biggest source of misinformation and conspiracy theories. The video shows Lam acting strangely in a hotel elevator, moving her hands in bizarre ways, and jumping in and out of the elevator as if she thinks she’s being chased. In the show, messageboard detectives point to the video's grainy timestamp, which is unreadable, and several glitchy cuts in the clip as evidence of tampering. The messageboard users also suggest that the video was purposely “slowed down,” which they say would explain why Lam’s behavior comes off as highly erratic. Some users also suggest that almost 53 seconds were edited out of the video. All these narratives related to the footage spread like wildfire, giving rise to many conspiracy theories, but few substantive leads.

The release of the video did not actually help the police. Instead, it just gamified the search for what happened to a young woman.

But ethics and proper practice are very important in OSINT, and different investigators work to different standards, which can produce varied results.

Messageboard detectives’ amplification of baseless theories and desire to find connections where none existed proved especially problematic for Pablo "Morbid" Vergara. Vergara, a Mexican death metal artist, was wrongfully accused of killing Lam by messageboard detectives after they found a YouTube video on his channel, showing time spent at the Cecil Hotel. Users' claims about Vergara’s alleged involvement were not tied to any substantial evidence, only that he was there at the same time as Lam and has written songs about death. The anonymous online sleuths sent Vergara death threats and got his accounts blocked from different social media platforms. What they failed to notice however was the date on Vergara’s YouTube video. It was from a year before Lam came to LA. At the time of Lam’s death, Pablo "Morbid" Vergara was not even in the U.S.

The good, the bad and the OSINT

Digital sleuthing is a form of investigation that relies on OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) techniques, where investigators use publicly available information to follow evidence and uncover leads. But ethics and proper practice are very important in OSINT, and different investigators work to different standards, which can produce varied results. For example, an OSINT investigator attached to an organization or media outlet will have to abide by internal policies, and will likely be subject to ethics audits to make sure their work stands up and is done properly. A freelance investigator is responsible for their own practices, as well as governed by media regulations requiring content to be factual, and of course the ever present threat of legal action if false claims are made. Messageboard detectives, however, can work without any of this oversight, and are frequently anonymous posters, meaning they are mostly able to make claims without fear of the consequences. This is not, of course, the modus operandi of every amateur internet detective, but it’s certainly a problem in places.

As OSINT expert and digital investigator Benjamin Strick told me: "One big issue is people being too quick to jump to conclusions and misattributing guilt. If you scroll down in the comments, you also see comments like ‘I think it's (insert name),’ or ‘OMG that looks just like.’ Sure, I get it. Everyone wants to blame someone. But [if] that person is innocent, it really ruins their lives. That approach hinders investigations where the real actors have not been identified and hinder the industry of open-source research as a whole. It tarnishes the work of amateur internet investigators or digital, who are diligent and commit their standard to a high threshold of accountability and conduct meticulous documentation."

Emmi Clay Bevensee, a data and disinformation journalist, says that “there are some real tradeoffs between small groups of high trust and highly skilled groups and a giant swarm of people on say Twitter all poring over the same thing. The former tend to be very diligent; however, the latter is much better at certain tasks but is also much more dangerous. They lack the skill to do subtle forms of verification.” 

For internet detectives, a dead-end is the sign of a cover-up, not a dead-end.

After finishing the show, I wondered how effective messageboard detectives really were. The show mentions that internet users have successfully solved cases in the past. Insider lists eight cases that were solved with the help of some internet sleuths. But a key difference is that — in these eight cases — the internet sleuths had all the key information they needed about these cases because the police had disclosed all the key information. 

Another story, this time published in the Atlantic, focuses on the case of a girl who was murdered and identified 13 years later by three internet sleuths. In this instance though, they used genetic genealogy to solve the case. Unlike with the Lam case, the people who solved the case were meticulous and used proper scientific techniques as they were all amateur genealogists.

Bevensee stresses that: "both large and small forms of OSINT have value, the key is enforcing better norms for safety so innocent bystanders aren't falsely implicated. But as societies adapt to online forms of conflict, people will continue to strengthen their abilities to move in swarms. It's a powerful and not well understood new form of social organization that can be used for good by social movements, or for horrible racist violence like on forums like 8chan.”

The problem with symbolism

Logically’s Head of Investigations, Joe Ondrak, says that listening to the way the Cecil sleuths sought out connections between perceived leads could be seen as proto-baking. By this, Ondrak means the way QAnon followers decipher messages from Q. “There are key differences between hobbyists and professionals,” he says. “One of the biggest, I think, is the ability to allow oneself to be wrong.

“Nobody likes a dead-end, but the blow and sunk-cost for folks who do this as a job is softened by a paycheck. Those spending tens or maybe even hundreds of hours at a computer screen after work will be less inclined to write-off a line of inquiry after investing that much time, leading to certainties, for example that Vergara was a murderer without first verifying his time at the hotel, or speculating on outlandish bioweapon claims. For them, a dead-end is the sign of a cover-up, not a dead-end.”

Much like followers of QAnon, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’s sleuths show a tendency to fixate on “symbolism” in place of hard evidence. In 2013, in the same month as Lam’s disappearance, Skid Row — a run-down neighborhood in LA and the Cecil Hotel's location — experienced a TB outbreak. Messageboard detectives became fixated by this outbreak because of the name of the TB test, LAM-ELISA, short for Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). This led many to suggest Lam was a “secret agent” or a “bio-weapon” sent by the government to infect people with TB and was killed after she served her purpose. This is all quite striking when put together, but in fact there had been only 11 TB-related deaths in LA since 2009, and health workers had identified more than 4,000 people who might have been infected with this particular strain of TB. Since Skid Row was mostly home to the homeless, outbreaks like this were common. The name of the test was simply a coincidence. Internet detectives found symbolism too in Pablo Vergara’s music. Music, particularly rock and metal, have often been the subject of moral panics around satanism, since the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, which some have argued has seen a modern resurgence in QAnon.

Alex Newhouse, a data scientist and extremist researcher, told me, "Investigations of extremism and terrorism would not be possible without the crowd-sourced work of countless unaffiliated "sleuths" and citizen journalists. Bellingcat, arguably one of the best OSINT outlets in the business, began as simply a handful of people passionate about OSINT work! However, the online OSINT community's decentralized nature means that bad practices can have a disproportionately large effect. Uncovering supposed smoking guns in someone's digital past is an essential part of tracking extremism, but when done without appropriate care and verification practices, it can result in harm to both innocent people and the reputation of OSINT researchers broadly. Bad practices, whether that's lack of operational security, rigorous verification, or poor infiltration, can compound dangers to the community."

The existence of internet sleuths is not inherently good or bad. But the impact of bad research practices can be damaging, and can destroy people’s lives. Churning out the same theory and repeating it over and over often adversely impacts investigations and also gives a bad name to the OSINT community in general. 

We cannot rule out that amateur internet investigators can help uncover information and solve cases. But ethics and best practice are paramount, and Redditors and YouTubers would do well to remember this.

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