UW expert explains how debunked serial killer rumor went viral on social media

Awful lies can come with awful consequences.

Some of the bad misinformation we’ve seen lately includes a serial killer on the loose in Seattle, the U.S. Postal Service keeping people from voting and someone destroying votes for a big election.

All could scare or anger someone — and all are false.

The University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public was created to help identify this kind of bad information.

Taylor Agajanian is a research project coordinator with the CIP. She joined KIRO 7 on Friday to talk about the serial killer rumor and other cases of misinformation regarding elections across the country.

The serial killer rumor started at the beginning of October, when a young woman was found dead on the side of State Route 509 near Burien. It became part of a lie gone viral — that there was a serial killer on the loose, multiple women had been killed and police weren’t telling the public about it.

Agajanian said the social media post about the serial killer mentioned the girl found near Burien, but it also mentioned three other murders that supposedly happened beforehand but were never reported on.

“I think that was probably one of the things that set my alarm bells off first. It said that the media and the police weren’t telling anybody because they didn’t want to alarm them,” Agajanian said. “But the last one was reported on whereas the first three weren’t … so that was something that set me off to think that this probably did not happen in the way that the text message is saying that it did.”

Agajanian said the first red flag was that she couldn’t find any reporting on the purported murders that happened before the Burien case.

She also noticed that people were sharing the social media post, but there wasn’t a lot of conversation around what was actually happening.

“I tend to look for actual conversation around it, like what are people actually saying,” Agajanian said. “So I did find that people were sharing it. It seemed to be going around in the same text message form, so in this case it’s what we would call a ‘copypasta,’ which is just like a copy-paste job, basically.

“When you keep seeing it circulate in the same form, in that kind of copy-paste manner, it can often be a sign that it’s not necessarily true.”