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Idaho murders: Can social media sleuths be sued for wrongful accusations?

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Nearly 40 days after four University of Idaho students were stabbed to death in their home near campus on Nov. 13, police have not named any suspects in the case, and social media users are running amok with rumors about who committed the gruesome crime. 

It’s possible that those who are publicly spreading rumors and naming innocent people as suspects in the case could face legal consequences, whereas companies like Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that platforms can’t be held liable for what third-party users post on their websites. 

“It would be a challenge to do [sue a platform], legally, unless you could show that something in the design of that particular social media platform significantly contributed or facilitated those defamatory comments,” attorney Matthew Bergman, who represents people harmed by social media platforms, told Fox News Digital. “But the nature and scope of Section 230 is being reevaluated. The Supreme Court is going to hear a case in February on this subject matter.”

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The four victims in the Idaho murders — Ethan Chapin, 20; Xana Kernodle, 20; Kaylee Goncalves, 21; and Madison Mogen, 21 — had, or still have, public social media accounts, allowing internet sleuths to analyze their every post on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and other platforms for potential clues that could expose the murderer.

The victims of the Nov. 13 University of Idaho massacre. 

The victims of the Nov. 13 University of Idaho massacre.  (Instagram @xanakernodle / @maddiemogen / @kayleegoncalves)

While the public’s digging may be helpful in some cases, it can be harmful when innocent people are wrongly accused, and there have been plenty of people associated with the quadruple murder victims, whether they be friends, exes or roommates, who have been named on these platforms and subject to harmful rumors. Some users have opted to use nicknames for these people they suspect of killing the victims while others have used their full names and posted photos of them on public forums or in private groups with thousands of like-minded users.

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“Bullying can be so much more damaging on social media because it spreads to everyone you know,” Bergman explained. “And if somebody said something to a person that is hurtful or wrongfully accuses them of something, it never goes away. And it can be multiplied, and it can go viral.”

A sign posted in a local diner in Moscow, Idaho, on Nov. 28, 2022, asks the public to look for clues in the quadruple homicide of four students from the University of Idaho.

A sign posted in a local diner in Moscow, Idaho, on Nov. 28, 2022, asks the public to look for clues in the quadruple homicide of four students from the University of Idaho. (Stephanie Pagones/Fox News Digital)

Moscow police even began a section of their regularly updated press release called “Rumor control,” quashing rumors about the crime, victims or perpetrators that have spread online. They are also keeping an ongoing list of individuals whom they have ruled out as suspects.

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Officials have warned that law enforcement officers have been monitoring rumors on social media and noted in a Dec. 9 press release that “[a]nyone engaging in threats or harassment whether in person, online or otherwise needs to understand that they could be subjecting themselves to criminal charges.”

Bergman noted that Richard Jewell — a security guard who was wrongfully accused of planting a bomb in Atlanta’s Olympic Park in 1996 — received compensation after he was defamed by media.

Flowers at an improvised memorial at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, on Nov. 21, 2022, for four of its students who were slain on Nov. 13.

Flowers at an improvised memorial at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, on Nov. 21, 2022, for four of its students who were slain on Nov. 13. (Derek Shook for Fox News Digital)

When asked whether he had any advice for the sleuths posting this content online, Bergman’s response was simple: “Stop it.”

“You’re not police. You are impeding the investigation and compounding the harms that resulted from this horrific act. And you’re being a bad citizen by doing it. So stop it,” he said. 

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The individuals who are being targeted online “can draft a very hard-hitting cease and desist letter” to those spreading rumors and “threaten legal action and demand that this statement be retracted and withdrawn again,” Bergman explained.

Ethan Chapin, 20, Xana Kernodle, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, along with the women's two other roommates in Kaylee Goncalves' final Instagram post, shared the day before the slayings.

Ethan Chapin, 20, Xana Kernodle, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, along with the women’s two other roommates in Kaylee Goncalves’ final Instagram post, shared the day before the slayings. (@kayleegoncalves/Instagram)

The Moscow community and those following the case are frustrated by a lack of answers more than a month after the murders occurred. Investigators are poring through thousands of leads and digital evidence submissions. There were six people, including two surviving roommates, sleeping in the house when the attack occurred. The house was also known to have frequent gatherings, leading experts to suggest that investigators are trying to analyze and identify DNA evidence from the scene. 

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Police are still searching for a white Hyundai Elantra that was spotted near the scene of the Idaho quadruple homicide in the early morning hours of Nov. 13. They believe the occupant(s) of the vehicle may have important information about the homicides.

Authorities are asking the public to call in tips at 208-883-7180, email tipline@ci.moscow.id.us or submit digital media here.

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