Everybody’s looking for love, right? Love is all you need. At least that’s what they keep telling you. So why should you be any different? You have needs, too.

So you just sit in your room and scroll through FB, or Insta, or Tokand there they are. It might as well be Tinder. All of them looking so pretty.

And here’s the best part—they don’t have any idea you’re staring at them. Following their every post. Checking out every move they make. Every tasty smile they flash. It’s your reassuring secret.

Because if they don’t know, they can’t turn you down. There’s no one smirking, telling you to get real, dude. There’s no one telling you to get lost.

So you just keep looking and looking and looking.

And you keep thinking: I WANT IT! I WANT IT! I WANT IT!

Only you know what they’re thinking: You can’t have it!

Want to bet?

Yes, it might very well have begun like that—defiance born out of desperation. Still, of course, it is an impossibility to glimpse into Bryan Kohberger’s chaotic internal world. His thought dreams remain unseen, unshared. And no less a governor on speculation, he is for now at most (and at worst) only the accused; his culpability for the brutal murders of four University of Idaho college students remains to be established beyond reasonable doubt in the rigorous precinct of a courtroom.

Nevertheless, in a perplexing case that has stirred a national whirlwind of conjecture, there still are touchstones that beg for scrutiny. The search for truth, it might very well be argued, is the search for better hypotheses. And one place to start—tantalizing clues, perhaps—is an inquiry into the role that social media played. For it has seemingly ignited the combustible sparks—if not supplied the raw hot fuel!—in so many intertwined aspects of this grim saga. From the fanciful plotting of the murders to the dogged hunt for a killer, to the nasty, overwrought diatribes pointing accusatory fingers at innocents, to the insolent, snarling attacks on those who dare to dip into the murky trough that contains the submerged secrets floating below the surface of this horrific crime—all coalesce in a single intriguing premise. We are living through one of the first major crime stories of the Social-Media Age. And the Internet, for better and worse, has changed the narrative entirely.

A Warning Label

At precisely 8:57 p.m. on the last full day of her life, in the midst of a busy Saturday bustling with the flurry of convivial activities generated by a football game in a college town, Kaylee Goncalves paused before going out for a night at the Corner Club bar with her best friend, Madison Mogen. She posted a series of photos on her Instagram account which she captioned, “One lucky girl to be surrounded by these ppl everyday.”

The photos are a cheery collection of six college kids, the youngest 19, the oldest 21, bursting with bright-eyed good looks and future promise. They were meant to be, it appears, visual testimony to the fun the students were having, to the blessings a munificent life had generously bestowed on them.

In those frozen moments it seems incredible—no, impossible—that within hours four of them will be dead. How could destiny be so unforgiving? How could it even summon up the malicious power to overwhelm such simple joy?

Yet, of course, fate had, as always, the last cruel laugh.

It is now forever part of the dismal history of our time that Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle, Madison Mogen, and Kaylee Goncalves, in the gray half-light before the dawn of the following day, were ruthlessly murdered by a knife-wielding assailant.

And it is a tragedy that has bestowed an unanticipated significance on one of the most frequently reproduced photos from Kaylee’s last-day trove. In retrospect, one can almost hear a muffled drumbeat of the cataclysm that is surging relentlessly forward.

Dylan Mortensen with (clockwise from top left) Maddie Mogen, Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle, and Kaylee Goncalves.

At the time, though, it might have seemed nothing special. One more glimpse into the exuberant, self-contained universe of a group of happy-go-lucky college kids. Another post in an ongoing series that documented this merry band of brothers and sisters.

In the photo, there are the six of them posing on a narrow porch in the bright autumnal light. Yet the arrangement, however haphazard, has the intimations of a deliberate iconography. It might as well be a foretelling of what is to come. For at each end of the row, as if bookends to the main drama, are the two young women who will be the sole survivors of the carnage that is inexorably approaching. While at center stage, directly in the camera’s eye, are the four victims; and here, too, the seeming predictive power of the images is unnerving.

Maddie is balanced on Kaylee’s shoulders, blonde on blonde, united and dependent on each other; they will die together in the same bed. Standing next to them, a head taller, is a tousle-haired Ethan, his left arm crooked possessively (and protectively?) around Xana, both of their dark outfits outliers to the faded denims all the others are wearing; and they, too, will be dead within hours.

At the time, the photograph was a celebration, and Kaylee posted it to Instagram for all the world to see. It was nothing unusual, a benign and even arguably banal gesture. Or was it?

We are living through one of the first major crime stories of the Social-Media Age.

Instagram is by its very nature public. It’s a shout-out to the world. Only one of the vehement warnings to be gleaned from the Idaho murders might very well be that it would be prudent to remember that the open society has its enemies. A joyful instance of self-affirmation can reverberate in some forlorn minds as a taunt. An impossible dream that in a stranger’s isolation, in his entropy, will forever be beyond his grasp. In envious hearts, a raging, roiling anger can take hold—and take command. Each new proud image on Instagram or TikTok becomes another depiction of forbidden fruit. And if it has been decreed that this bounty will always be dangling maddeningly out of reach, a deranged mind may decide to axe down the tree.

Bryan Kohberger has been extradited from Pennsylvania to face trial for the murders in Idaho.

Is this what had happened? Was, in fact, a killer in the making tracking his victims on social media? Did each new shared image cut another notch deep into his mounting rage?

It’s a premise, unproven, conjectural, yet one that cries out for investigation. Four deaths is a high price for society—and an impossible one for the grieving families—to pay. For if indeed social media played a motivating part in a killer’s furious, vindictive journey, a warning label of sorts needs to be posted on the portals to these sites: Take heed, all who enter here.

A Universe of Nascent Suspicions

Still, there’s no denying social media’s efficacy, too. As the weeks passed without an arrest, law-enforcement authorities, in their state of frustration and desperation, called out for help. “Detectives are looking for context to the events and people involved in these murders,” read the beseeching announcement posted online by the Moscow, Idaho, police department. “Whether you believe it is significant or not,” it read, you might possess “the piece of the puzzle that helps investigators solve these murders.”

And so the puzzle pieces started pouring in. Nearly 20,000 clues—a feverish collection of calls, e-mails, and videos—were received by the Idaho cops. And at least one of these tips helped change everything. For a graveyard-shift attendant at a gas station near the King Road murder house took the police’s appeal to heart. And after a couple of long nights of carefully focused hunting, she discovered a surveillance video that helped clarify and confirm the authorities’ mounting interest in a white Hyundai Elantra that had been spotted in the off-campus neighborhood in the early-morning hours. It was a piece of tangible evidence that became one more footprint on the trail that would soon lead to Bryan Kohberger.

Of the more than 20,000 mostly useless tips received by the police, one, from a gas-station attendant who spotted Kohberger’s white Hyundai Elantra on a surveillance video, led to a big break in the case.

It was a concerned citizen’s triumph, yet it was also something more. It offers an insight into the roots of the nearly universal fascination with this case. Consider: As the investigation dragged on and on, seemingly without a clue, the seeds were planted—encouraged even!—by the authorities for outsiders to play a role. And thousands of would-be detectives had a field day. After all, more than at any other time in history, it was easy to be a sleuth. One didn’t, in fact, need to go any further than his or her electronic device of choice. A few clicks on your phone or laptop and a vast world of potential clues would be revealed, a universe of nascent suspicions that conceivably would’ve overwhelmed even the most diligent speculations of a Sherlock Holmes.

A Los Angeles Times reporter once asked Anthony Zuiker, the creator of the CSI franchise and one of its executive producers, to explain the shows’ colossal success. “On the worst day of your life,” Zuiker responded, “the CSI investigators would come in, solve the crime, and bring peace of mind to the survivors and/or the victim, and put the bad guy away.” Now Internet sleuths could revitalize their own lives not by stepping into a make-believe world, but by solving a very real, very horrific crime. Social media gave them the potential, or so they wanted to believe, to find the incriminating nail that they could pound into the bad guy’s coffin. At last they could, as one poet urged, unite avocation and vocation.

Yet it was a communal exercise that led to Jacobin excesses, too. If in an open society anyone could play detective and post “solutions” on the Internet, this lack of rules and boundaries also meant that anyone could be publicly vilified. Overzealous amateurs posted mystifying nonsense that demeaned ex-boyfriends of the victims, exploited casual encounters, and nosily dished up toxic and audacious “facts.” Worse—and this is the inescapable danger in the open marketplace that is social media—malicious harangues were readily accepted as gospel by a chorus of admiring fools. This, too, is part of the sad history that has enveloped the Idaho-murders saga.

A Stern Decree

Only now the court, in its lofty wisdom, has decided to intervene. Having had her fill of the extraordinary attention the entire affair has generated, Latah County judge Megan Marshall, the flinty Idaho magistrate assigned to the case, has ruled that as far as the public is concerned, less is more than enough. On January 3, in the aftermath of Bryan Kohberger’s arrest on four counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony burglary, she issued a gag order restricting comments from prosecutors, the defense, law enforcement, and other officials. Then, still not satisfied that she’d successfully dampened down the conversation sufficiently to ensure a fair trial, two weeks later she made her stern decree even sterner. She expanded the scope of her already broad order so that now the survivors and their attorneys, as well as the victims’ families and their attorneys, were also restricted from talking to the media.

The press didn’t take this lying down. Twenty-two news organizations, from the Associated Press and The New York Times to the local Idaho Statesman (which has tenaciously and provocatively unearthed scoops in story after story on the case), banded together to ask for a repeal. “This order is unnecessarily sweeping and broad and severely impedes the public’s understanding of a significant criminal investigation that profoundly impacted the community,” reprimanded Josh Hoffner, national news director for the Associated Press.

Magistrate Judge Megan Marshall has issued a gag order applying not just to the lawyers and law enforcement but also to the survivors and victims’ families.

And the news organizations’ complaints were echoed by an unlikely supporter. Shanon Gray, the hard-charging local Moscow attorney representing the Goncalves family (“I know how to be a hurricane,” he’d proudly boasted to me over coffee) has filed an appeal. “The victim’s surviving family members,” he contended, “are free to speak to the public and the media under the First Amendment to the Constitution. Simply put, their rights to the freedom of speech cannot be restricted through a judicial prior restraint.”

The court will in due course decide. But in the meantime these high-minded constitutional arguments skirt a more pragmatic one. Any attempt to get at the truth, to rephrase The Washington Post’s earnest admonition, dies in darkness. If no one who is a legitimate authority on the case can speak out, it will neither put an end to the public’s intense interest in the events nor terminate the discussion. Instead, the arena will shift from the rigorous precincts of journalism to the Wild West of the Internet. Once again, the demons skulking on social media will be unleashed and truth will be the first (and second) casualty. A vacuum demands to be filled. And a more Solomonic judge would have realized that it’s not the accredited news organizations who would wantonly cut the baby in half in order to post a story.

Gag order or not, though, my mind will not rest. I keep returning to thoughts about the four murders in Idaho. It is a preoccupation that, time after pensive time, reinforces my nascent theories about the unique and extensive connections social media has to so many facets of this case. It was a catalyst, I believe, that helped to bring the crime to vivid life in a killer’s unsatisfied mind. And now that a gag order has submerged an understanding of events beneath fathoms of speculation, the worst actors on the Internet will dive in where a misguided judge has made sure no careful reporter will go. Caution and restraint are rare qualities in this too often malevolent environment.

Yet faced with all these reportorial obstacles, I search on nevertheless for cornerstones of unimpeachable evidence. And so I find myself returning to the photo Kaylee posted of her friends on the last full day of her too brief life. In one way, the image provides a sort of solace. Like the figures that a young John Keats viewed (Or is it imagined? Scholars are of two minds) on a Grecian urn, and despite the sad fate that is poised to descend on them, the beauty of the four friends now “cannot fade.” Forever they, too, will “love” and be “fair.” And they, too, will stay “forever young.”

And their killer will be a prisoner locked in his own internal hell, his desire spent but without content. Doomed to be, as Keats imagined, “forever panting.”

Howard Blum is the author of several books, including the Edgar Award–winning American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century. He is currently writing a book about the Idaho student murders for HarperCollins