Obsessive social media interest in the disappearance of Nicola Bulley threatens to undermine future missing person investigations, a former police commissioner has warned.
The proliferation of videos about Ms Bulley on the social media platform TikTok now matches those during the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard, figures show.
Lancashire police’s failure to make significant progress in its search for the mother-of-two, has prompted amateur detectives to speculate online about Ms Bulley’s fate since she went missing three weeks ago.
Martyn Underhill, former police and crime commissioner for Dorset, warned that the “unprecedented” emergence of social media could set a dangerous example for future cases.
“This is the first missing persons case that’s seen these levels of toxic behaviour on social media,” the retired Sussex detective chief inspector told The Telegraph. “It exceeds anything that happened in other cases, such as that of Sarah Everard.
“My fear is it will set a precedent for future cases, with TikTok detectives descending on the scene with their speculation and misleading theories.”
Lancashire police allowed speculation over Ms Bulley’s case to spread by not “setting the media agenda” from early on, he suggested.
“Social media detectives stepped into the vacuum of information left by Lancashire police,” he said. “Police will have to change the way they conduct similar investigations to take social media into account.”
Videos discussing Ms Bulley and using her name as a hashtag have accumulated more than 289.5 million views since she disappeared three weeks ago.
Those using the hashtag “Nicola Bulley search” have 21.2 million views while those for “Nicola Bulley husband” have 1.2 million.
By comparison, public emotion over the kidnap and murder of Ms Everard by serving police officer Wayne Couzens, in March 2021, generated similar viewing figures but over a much longer period.
The hashtag Sarah Everard has 308 million views on TikTok, while the hashtag Justice for Sarah Everard has 65.7 million views.
Since Ms Bulley vanished while walking her dog Willow on a footpath overlooking the River Wyre in Lancashire on Jan 27, Instagram “reels” using her name have had more than 158 million views, while posts have had around 115,000 interactions – likes, follows and comments.
On YouTube, videos using the same term have racked up 3.3 million views in total, with Twitter mentions reaching around 21 million views.
Lancashire police have criticised “TikTok-ers'” attempts at “playing their own private detectives”.
Film emerged on Saturday of men digging in local woodland as part of an apparent DIY search for the missing 45-year-old.
It came as police continued their search of the River Wyre and the estuary waters at Fleetwood, a day after announcing an internal review of their handling of the case.
Officers say social media speculation has been a hindrance to their investigation and led to them being “inundated with false information, accusations and rumours”.
Det Supt Rebecca Smith told a press conference last week that amateur speculation on social media had “significantly distracted” the investigation, saying: “In 29 years’ police service, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The coverage of Ms Bulley’s case on social media has angered those in her village of St Michael’s on Wyre.
One local dog walker, who gave his name only as John, told the Telegraph: “This TikTok stuff is ridiculous. It’s a lot of people playing armchair detectives and speculating about things they don’t know anything about.”
John, who was gathering litter he said had been left by “sightseers” near the bench where Ms Bulley was last seen, added: “It’s not helping the police at all. These videos just attract more people who haven’t got anything to contribute but just want to be part of it.”
In a further indicator of the obsessive behaviour generated by the case, data show TikTok videos suggesting Ms Bulley’s friends and family could be “crisis actors” staging events have accumulated more than 1.5 million views.
Some videos even allege the Government created the case as a “distraction”.
Ms Bulley’s family have called for an end to “speculation and rumour”, adding: “The public focus has to be on finding her and not making up wild theories about her personal life.”
Lancashire Constabulary said on Friday that it would launch an internal review of its search for Ms Bulley to be led by Det Chief Supt Pauline Stables, its head of crime.
The force has so far resisted calls to bring in an external force to scrutinise its handling of the case, including its controversial decision to release information about Ms Bulley’s struggle with alcohol and the menopause.
Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, has spoken with Lancashire’s Chief Constable Chris Rowley and his senior team about the investigation and “asked to be kept updated on the investigation”.