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Jay Slater and the horror of true-crime ghouls Armchair detectives have turned a tragedy into a ghost story

Jay Slater is still missing.

Jay Slater is still missing.


June 25, 2024   7 mins

The story of Jay Slater seems textbook. The 19-year-old apprentice bricklayer from Oswaldtwistle near Blackburn went missing last Monday after leaving an Airbnb in Tenerife’s arid mountain region to embark on an ill-advised 11-hour hike home with no water and a dying phone. He had been at the drug-fuelled NRG rave the night before, staying on and travelling an hour to the property with two unidentified men after his pals left at 2am. What happened seems obvious: an afters-addled teen in a strange place ambling into mortal danger, battered by the heat and lacking the wherewithal to wait for a bus. Police are into the eighth day of the investigation, with drones and foot searches around the northwestern village of Masca. It is not a far cry from Michael Mosley’s sad disappearance and death earlier this month, battling the heat in unfamiliar Greek terrain. But, many claim, things are not as they seem.

Soon after his disappearance, Slater’s holiday companion, Lucy-Mae Law, set up a GoFundMe to “get Jay Slater home” which had, by Monday morning, raised more than £32,000. There are 3,000 individual donations at the time of writing; the comment board heaves with messages from concerned citizens reporting that they are anxiously “checking for news updates”. “He is continually on my mind,” says one. Most of the messages are from women — we have Barbra, Lorraine and Karen among the hundreds who have taken to social media to express concern for the baby-faced teen; concern, and deeply twisted scepticism.

A gaggle of Facebook groups soon cropped up to field conspiracy theories about Slater’s disappearance. At present, “Jay Slater Discussions and Theories” has 281,000 members; “Jay Slater Missing Tenerife” has 62,000. The “Only Official Group” for the search has more than half a million. On Friday, there were 21 such groups; by Monday morning, the total had sprawled into a grisly 129, many with specific demands and niches (“no snotty admins”) — with a handful of dedicated “Jay Slater Banter” accounts to boot.

The content of these groups is, to say the least, batshit. Internet sleuths and true crime ghouls trace Jay’s hiking routes; they watch livestream footage of the mountains and pick out shadowy figures — often palm trees — who might be “involved”. Several people have actually travelled to the search location; “I am filming a small informative video to go up tonight if appropriate,” says one. “PLEASE READ A WHITE CAR IS PARKED AGAIN ON THE CCTV LOOK,” says Amber. David soberly replies: “95% of cars in Spain are white apparently.” “It looked like too [sic] men dressed in black hiding something,” says Ava. Paul chips in: “A lot of people don’t believe mediums but they’ve helped solve crimes before. There has been a couple mediums from other groups … saying something along the lines of Jay is surrounded by mountains, injured and needs help.” If only I had that oracular power.

I first heard of the hysteria when it was ruthlessly mocked on Twitter/X, with hard-nosed realists sneering at the “crushed velvet sofa” brigade, parodying brainless conversations about “this lad in Tenerife”. For the post-ironic edgelords of one platform, the story is not about the teenager but the uncool and manic gullibility of another. The discourse is now snagged on the barbed wire fence between Boomers and snarky Millennials — there is a cold detachment to the Twitter mockery which is even more chilling than the bizarro spitballing on Facebook; a further turning away from the simple human misfortune at the story’s centre.

The reason for the story’s virality is its factually flexible juiciness. In a vacuum of information, much suspicion has been targeted at Law, the 18-year-old holiday companion who set up the fundraising page. Blissfully dismissive of libel laws, people have been enthusiastically calling her a “drugs mule for them over there”, saying she is “known in the clubs” of Tenerife for peddling substances. “She gets paid to go to raves/festivals and takes drugs over to sell” reads a screenshot of a private text exchange. The evidence for these claims is non-existent.

Many accounts claim “I know someone out there”. “I have friends over in Tenerife and what’s been said to me by them don’t sound good at all,” says one ominous and helpfully vague post. A popular theory goes that Jay, who was handed a community order for splitting a 17-year-old boy’s head open with a machete along with seven accomplices in August 2021, was on a mission to “steal a Rolex” — a codename, sleuths speculate, for ecstasy.

Then, there are the straight-up fakes. A text exchange supposedly with Lucy contains the spiritually concerning vow: “Once I die I’ll take the secret to my death”. Several posts compare the mystery to the Shannon Matthews case — when a nine-year-old girl was reported missing in Dewsbury in 2008, only to be found hiding under a family friend’s bed in a plot to profit from reward money. “She’s almost smiling and laughing at times,” says a comment under a video interview with Jay’s mother Debbie Duncan. “The mum is 100% involved,” says a post. “Rumours going round he’s been found tied up in a shed, to be confirmed,” says another.

From the nastily accusatory to the downright ridiculous: a woman called Kirsty kindly offers, “I have a Labrador who has a very sensitive nose. Maybe he could pick up a scent if you have an item with his smell on it?” One can only imagine the poor dog trudging around the mountains and barren valleys of Tenerife after having had a teenager’s sweaty Hugo Boss t-shirt shoved into its snout. “What if it’s the same person that took Madeline [sic] McCann,” asks one TikTok investigator.

What may seem like obvious trolling becomes grimly more credible in the context of the general hysteria of these groups, in which users satisfy morbid fascinations with hours of unsolicited research. In one forum, “top contributor” Steve admits he has spent six hours on Google Maps “zooming in on the satellite view to see if I can find him”, only to realise he was looking at Lanzarote. Little does he know the map function is not even live (he was probably looking at a three-year-old static image of the wrong part of Spain). Better not to waste valuable time doing the research, Steve: show the chutzpah of the anonymous poster who posited that Jay is “still on the mountain” but is simply “attached to a cactus”.

“Steve admits he has spent six hours on Google Maps trying to find him, only to realise he was looking at Lanzarote.”

This is not the first time a missing person has sparked a flurry of speculation. Nicola Bulley, 45, disappeared in Lancashire last year, having fallen into a river and drowned. At the time, social media lit up with theories about the supposed involvement of her devastated husband (who, it emerged, had nothing to do with it). In a bizarre twist, a detective who worked on the Bulley case has said he can have Jay Slater’s disappearance sewn up “in three days” if he can join the search.

People go missing all the time, gaining woefully scant attention. But from Madeleine McCann to Lord Lucan, certain cases have a specific appeal for armchair investigators. In Lucan’s case, his aristocratic background and intriguing family life was central; McCann’s abduction was made sensational by cruel suspicions around her parent’s involvement. The abuse they received, like Bulley’s husband, was shameful at what could only have been the worst time of their lives.

The same vicious speculation was directed at the Princess of Wales during her absence — now understood to have been linked to her cancer diagnosis — after the posting of a bodged photoshop in March. Even now, Kate’s re-emergence at Trooping the Colour was met with cruel videos on TikTok in which assorted “creators” compared images of the royal’s face before and after her chemotherapy treatment, claiming that her cancer announcement was simply a cover-up for having a facelift. Now, Slater’s family and friends are feeling the brunt of the same misinformed, vicious curiosity — turbo-powered by late-stage internet culture.

There will always be an appetite for mystery and problem-solving — particularly among the Miss Marples of middle-aged Facebook — but we must acknowledge that social media has lit the touchpaper of the most base instincts around tragedy. In Jay Slater’s case, all the ingredients for prurient fascination are there: he is a “sweet lad” from a relatable background, on a holiday to a popular British tourist destination. We have a dash of exotic glamour, a touch of Death in Paradise, coupled with the homely sensibilities of concerned parents. We have a suspicion of blundering foreign policemen and murky goings-on in tourist hotspots. And, in an innovation which sets modern murder mysteries apart from those in the golden age of print, we have an absolute abundance of data — forums, webcams, social media profiles, tranches of images — coupled with a lack of detail apposite to what will undoubtedly turn out to be a depressingly banal case of an intoxicated youngster making a mistake. The fervour to compile information, the eagerness to thrill one another with exclusive tidbits and wild theories, can only thrive in the dank chasm created by too much power and too few facts, like noxious fungi spreading in the dark.

The human tragedy at the centre of this story has been shoved to the side, while compelling narratives are warped and milked and passed around like ghost stories. And, critically, few upstanding publications care to engage with the lunatics on social media — the traditional Press understands that it is unfair and undignified, let alone legally sticky, to baselessly speculate. As a result, online communities are left to fester and flourish, and are afforded the most intoxicating feeling of all: a sense that “no-one is talking about this”; that we are “not being told” something.

That a boom in true crime coincided with a global pandemic, and has only metastasised since then, is not a coincidence. The banal confines of life under lockdown saw social spheres turned inwards, with the isolated, bored and unfulfilled hooking themselves up to a steady drip of intoxicating Netflix thrills — a trend which Baby Reindeer, whose obsessive fans identified and harassed its real-life “stalker” character, has indefinitely prolonged. At a time of uncertainty, unpicking the tragedies of others must have seemed soothing, a gruesome schadenfreude.

True-crime mysteries are deceptive in their complexity, for at bottom what we like about them is their comforting simplicity. If we solve this, if we find the one answer, it is done. How heady, in a world of such harrowing unpredictability, must it be to cast aside all the bother of other news stories (a tangle of election stories, the depressing cost of living, the ever-looming prospect of international conflict) and become the saviour detective in your own. But this is not victimless; immersing ourselves in pet conspiracy theories, whether that be Kate Middleton’s health or the shadowy elite shoving us into 15-minute cities, is not just about freedom of speech or thought. In this case, it will probably mean that a 19-year-old boy staggering home from a rave died, parched, on a slope in the Canary Islands, only to become a martyr to Netflix-addled nosiness.


Poppy Sowerby is an UnHerd columnist

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Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
20 days ago

One of the many, many examples of why I jettisoned my Facebook account about 5 years ago; vowing never to return.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
22 days ago

Man, we’re bored. Somebody needs to invent faster-than-light travel tout suite so that we can head out into space and start having meaningful adventures again.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
22 days ago

Best comment in awhile.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
21 days ago

Yes. Who could have guessed that having everything at our fingertips would lead to mind-boggling boredom?

Bob Downing
Bob Downing
22 days ago

Thank you, Ms Sowerby, for this expose of what is happening in the outreaches of “social media”. It is disturbing that many of those thus engaged also have the right to vote in the next election. But I have to wonder if they’ll bother with such a banal subject? If they won’t, it then follows that one should ask whether their activities even merit reporting. Obviously when they cause distress to others, it should at least be recorded.
On the other hand those ‘others’ (family & friends) do not have to read the trash being posted, and can remain blissfully ignorant should they wish. It would hardly be the first time affected relatives cancelled their social media feeds, including “friends” who persisted in passing on offensive material. As viewers used to point out to the campaigners against some types of TV programme, there is always The Off Switch (something I use ever more frequently as I age).
Maybe the lesson is that we should all be very aware of the likely reaction should we ever find ourselves closely linked to a human tragedy, and ready to self-isolate, along with our true friends.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
22 days ago

There’s a documentary on Netflix called The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel, produced by Ron Howard, that is not only a good true crime story but also illustrates the horrors of true crime online sleuths.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
22 days ago

Village gossip – now with added internet!

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
22 days ago

Same story here, on the insanity that descended on Moscow, Idaho after the 2022 murder of the four students :
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001x8mz

Not ONE of the TikTok sleuths got within a thousand miles of any piece of evidence or even had an inkling of the suspect.
He was detected by dogged, thankless, old-school police work. A slow & deliberative process of elimination of cars on traffic cameras, and pings on mobile phone towers, found him. And then a tiny piece of DNA he left on a knife sheath, collared him.
The influencers just spent their time harassing anyone who looked a bit weird, didn’t seem to be grieving appropriately or they sat there risibly, sighing & farting as they received messages from ‘spirits’ and the dead.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
22 days ago

It’s not just “social media” though, is it. The BBC news website (cobwebsite?) has been leading on this story for days. A brief glance was enough; Poppy’s piece confirmed the banality of a young man finding himself out of his depth – unfortunate but also un-newsworthy.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
22 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

In the ‘Trial by TikTok’ Moscow Idaho one, the BBC presenter seems just a bit too like the influencers for comfort – she has a touch of the same narcissism.

it’s disturbing as the narcissism of influencer and online ‘sleuth’ is not a world a way from the narcissism of the killer himself, living out his ‘truth’ as they live out theirs.

But theirs just requires endless attention and yabbering shit into a camera . . . his ‘actualisation’ requires other – doubtless more socially successful and well-adjusted people – to die.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
21 days ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

I can’t wait for the ‘outtakes ‘ and the sure-to-be forthcoming BBC documentary about how they made the documentary about how they made the…..

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
22 days ago

Some decades ago we had no internet or mobile phones and many more of us frequented local pubs. In every pub in every village, town or city there would usually be at least one socially dysfunctional character best avoided for his tedious crackpot obsessions. This was often stuff like Hitler being misunderstood, the Bermuda triangle hiding a secret US government testing facility, or how all economic and social problems could be fixed be the middle-classes having their money and property forcibly taken away.
Deeply irritating as these guys could be (they were almost always men by the way) they were relatively easy to escape and being socially isolated they rarely met anyone of similar ilk. If you were very unlucky you would come across a small group getting themselves worked up about class warfare, but that was about the extent of it.
Fast forward 30 years and now this hitherto relatively small handful of slightly tragic men trying to strike up conversations with strangers in pubs has found each other via social media. What’s more they’ve been joined by all the true crime obsessed women in the world who for various reasons didn’t go in pubs alone back in the day. So they’ve reached a kind of hyper-connected event horizon whereby literally any theory, no matter how utterly ludicrous, pointless and easy to disprove, can gain global traction if enough people jump on it.
The chances are they will not find this young man Jay Slater alive now. From what I’ve read he sounds like a bit of a scrote to be honest, but he doesn’t deserve what may have been a terrible death. Maybe there has been some foul play involved as I can’t imagine Tenerife raves are entirely free of criminal elements. But regardless of whether the truth is simply that he foolishly wandered off unprepared into the murderous heat or got on the wrong side of the wrong people, it won’t stop the social media speculation because it never does once the story takes on a life of its own.

Cecil Skell
Cecil Skell
21 days ago

Most of these people are allowed to vote.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
21 days ago

“…Jay, who was handed a community order for splitting a 17-year-old boy’s head open with a machete along with seven accomplices in August 2021…”
Um…. He what now?

D Glover
D Glover
21 days ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

Yes, I found that the most disturbing thing in the article. I have no opinion on where ‘Jay’ is or what happened to him, but I’m very worried by a society where you can split someone’s head open and not go to jail.
Didn’t Samuel Melia get two years for distributing far-right stickers? Imagine if he’d actually hit someone; heavier sentence? Community order? I honestly don’t know any more.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
21 days ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

Jay sounds like the type of person who would be of interest to drug traffickers and dealers looking for new recruits. So it is not unreasonable for the police to be considering this line of inquiry.

William Edward Henry Appleby
William Edward Henry Appleby
21 days ago

Or of interest to the friends, family and acquaintances of the person whose head he split open.

Su Mac
Su Mac
21 days ago

If you live in a bubble of stupid people who watch Love Island etc and submit to enjoying the fb rage triggering techniques, you probably have such a lack of self awareness you can’t see you are manipulated by everything you watch.

Reminds me of Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty. As it ever was.

Unplugged the tellybox 30 years ago to avoid inviting the dregs of humanity into my life

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
21 days ago
Reply to  Su Mac

Yes the “idiot’s lantern” gets more idiotic by the month.

As was predicted more channels led to more rubbish and finding anything of quality is much more difficult, in fact hardly worth the effort. And that includes the alleged “news” programmes.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
21 days ago

Despite all this amateur sleuthing, these people lack any real curiosity. If they had some, they would be more thoughtful.
As they are, they skate over the surface of reality. Their use of their imagination is simplistic.
As Sherlock Holmes says, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
If they read this Unherd article, would they see their own shortcomings?

William Amos
William Amos
19 days ago

This is called running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds. Almost 20 paragraphs decrying the speculations of amatuer sleuths while liberally reproducing them for the readers delectation.
“In this case, it will probably mean that a 19-year-old boy staggering home from a rave died, parched, on a slope in the Canary Islands, only to become a martyr to Netflix-addled nosiness.”
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