Why Rumors About Potential Serial Killers Can Be Dangerous

In early June 2023 social media posts suggested that a string of six women found dead in Portland, Oregon might be connected and that there could be a previously unknown serial killer on the loose, ABC News reports. The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) took steps to stop such speculation, announcing that, at that point in the investigation, there were no known links between the killings. Meanwhile, a short time earlier, a series of deaths in Austin, Texas also fostered similar online theories, according to Texas Monthly.

Like Portland, Austin police cautioned against such conjecture, echoing similar 2022 statements from Kansas City authorities, as rumors spread that a serial murderer might be responsible for a number of murdered and missing women in that city, Atlanta Black Star writes. According to the family members of a missing Kansas City teen, Jayonna Brown, such rumors were counterproductive for the investigation: The public sees signs of a serial killer, rather than clues to what really happened. "[I]t's not helpful," a Brown family member said.

Police withhold information for a reason

While investigations are ongoing, authorities often withhold information from the public, creating gaps in the narrative that social media content creators often utilize. According to Slate, how much or how little is revealed to the public is ultimately a judgment call, but typically, that information is withheld for good reason: Most often, to ensure that someone who might confess to the crime could only know details from firsthand experience rather than reiterating what they learned in the press.

Some details of a crime might also be kept quiet if it's thought that releasing the information could endanger someone or create a risk to public safety, per Cornell Law School. But if information related to a case could help the general public stay safe, such as signs of a possible serial killer, then that information would more than likely be released to the media, according to what University of Texas journalism professor and podcast host Kate Winkler Dawson told Grunge News

For this reason, when an investigation says there's no reason to think there's a serial killer, then odds are, it's best to believe them, Winkler Dawson says. Referring to the string of 2023 deaths in Austin, where the remains of nine men have been recovered in less than a year, she said, while particulars vary from case to case, when there's an ongoing risk the public should be aware of, police try "to get as much information to the public as soon as possible, and you're not seeing the same posture with these cases" (via Texas Monthly).

Most baseless serial killer theories fall victim to confirmation bias

Also notable, when engaging with previously-unknown serial killer theory online it's important to remember that the person creating the post doesn't have all the facts and be mindful that the stories they spin often rest on confirmation bias, or a type of cognitive bias that ignores evidence that doesn't conform to their preconceived notion of the truth, while only selecting evidence that supports their hypothesis (via Verywell Mind).

In the 2023 spate of Texas deaths, for example, all the remains were found in or around the more than 400-acre Lady Bird Lake, near Austin's nightlife district. Austin police have said there is no sign of foul play in the killings, and while so-called online investigators see a pattern that's a possible serial killer, they fail to account for the fact that the individuals recovered were likely intoxicated and simply drowned (via Texas Monthly).

As noted by the Portland Police Bureau regarding a series of unexplained deaths in the area, it's standard operating procedure for different investigators to be in contact but that doesn't necessarily mean the cases are connected. "Like with all investigations of this nature we are routinely in contact with our law enforcement partners," a PPB statement read (via ABC News). "That has happened here, but that should not suggest a connection has been made." According to the PPB, there was no "articulable danger" to the public.