Pointing fingers: moral judgements and law enforcement perception in online true crime communities

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Faculty of Arts, University of Regina

In the digital age, civilian interest in criminal cases has seen an upsurge over the past few years, leading to speculation, misinformation, and action on the part of online users. The November 2022 murder of four college students sent shockwaves across online communities, stoking widespread interest and drawing thousands to a single forum on Reddit. This study sought to analyze digitally-based civilian policing, addressing the current rise of online true crime communities. Leveraging Haidt and Graham’s Moral Foundations Theory (2007), this study examined the psychological processes that may be involved in public information consumption and online behaviour in response to criminal cases. The present research sought to understand whether the ubiquity of criminal cases in online spaces led citizens to participate in websleuthing forums as an outlet for moral judgement. We proposed that moral foundations language would be prevalent in Reddit discussions regarding the Idaho University criminal case and would be associated with police attitudes. Data was collected from the largest Reddit forum pertaining to the case. Both quantitative analyses (independent sample t-tests) and inductive methods (using Pennebaker et al.’s 2022 Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count Program and qualitative description) were used. Results demonstrated that fairness-related language was more prevalent in posts pertaining to law enforcement. Findings may advance knowledge on community engagement with law enforcement, and the broader scheme of internet culture relative to moral-psychological phenomena.

A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Psychology, University of Regina. 22 p.
Judgment (Ethics), Crime--Moral and ethical aspects., True crime stories--Communities., Criminal investigation--Citizen participation., Websleuth., Moral foundations., Attitude., Criminal cases.