Trending: Seattle startup founders, investors react to new state capital gains tax that targets stocks
A post on the dubseatv Facebook page about a suspected serial killer in the Seattle area has been labeled as false information. (Facebook screen grab)

Quick-spreading claims on social media over the weekend about a suspected serial killer in the Seattle area have been refuted by law enforcement officials and debunked by fact checkers.

A researcher at the University of Washington offered some insight Tuesday into what red flags the rumor raised, how such content spreads online, and what users can do to seek out the truth.

“At the very base level, doing a lateral search on your browser of whether it’s been reported on or whether you can corroborate any of the things is a good place to start,” Taylor Agajanian of the UW’s Center for an Informed Public told GeekWire.

She said such cases are characterized as “friend of a friend” claims, and they tend to go viral faster because one user trusts another user in their network enough to share information posted by that user. Copying and pasting a screen grab without having to add any personal reporting or context also speeds the process.

Agajanian, who has previously worked to counter anti-vaccine rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic, is focused on election integrity ahead of the upcoming midterms. She doesn’t put Seattle’s serial killer rumor in the same class of misinformation.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s quite the same thing as a lot of the election rumoring, because I think that is more fueled by actual actors trying to deceive you,” Agajanian said. “This to me feels a lot more like an urban legend than deliberate disinformation that’s damaging to democracy.”

The serial killer rumor appears to have gained steam online in a couple of different ways.

Dubseatv, a Seattle-based news aggregator, tweeted Saturday afternoon that King County Sheriff’s detectives were “notifying locals” about a serial killer in Seattle and that women’s bodies had been discovered in the Burien and SoDo areas “posed in the same way.” Dubseatv also posted on Instagram, saying four women had been found and that “detectives are avoiding going to the media to prevent enticing the suspect or suspects.”

Screen grabs also showed up online of an email sent by a Seattle bar manager to staff about how women in their 30s were being abducted and dismembered in an area south of the city. That’s how Agajanian heard the claim via text on Saturday, from someone who used to be a bartender, as the rumor spread through that community.

“The reason it was spreading was most likely for positive reasons, to foster safety in the community,” Agajanian said.

The Seattle Police Dept. tweeted Saturday evening that it had “received a number of inquiries” about the rumor and that the department “does *not* have any serial cases.”

The King County Sheriff’s Office also tweeted that the department was “aware of unverified online social media reports that select death investigations, in the vicinity of South Park/SR 509, may share similar characteristics. At this time, the Sheriff’s Office has identified no evidence affirming this for any cases under our jurisdiction.”

Sheriff’s Office detectives are investigating the discovery of a woman’s body found along SR 509 on Oct. 7, but not multiple bodies.

The City of Burien and the Burien Police Department both shared the Sheriff’s Office message on their respective Facebook pages.

A dubseatv Instagram post as well as a post on the dubseatv Facebook page now both feature a “false” information designation, which says the post has been checked by independent fact checkers who report “the information has no basis in fact.”

Facebook and Instagram, both run by Meta, provided a link to an Associated Press fact-checking story published Monday. The news organization said the story is part of its efforts to address widely shared misinformation, “including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online.”

Agajanian said a level of institutional distrust can be at play in these instances as users express a lack of confidence in what is being said by police, the media, or the tech platform that puts a false information label on something.

“Some people take it as indication that it’s more true,” Agajanian said. “Facebook said it’s not true … I don’t believe that.’ It’s a game of Whac-a-Mole sometimes.”

Dubseatv, which bills itself as “No. 1 in Seattle entertainment, news and culture,” has the majority of its followers on Instagram, with 158,000. The site posts a variety of news-related memes with uncredited information apparently drawn from other sources.

GeekWire reached out to an email address on the dubseatv Facebook page for comment on who runs the site, how they gather information and how they deal with misinformation. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline

Job Listings on GeekWork

Technology Services SpecialistGlobal Innovation Exchange, University of Washington
Software Engineer III – DevOpsNational Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.