It’s no secret that Americans love true crime, from entire podcasts dedicated to delving into the details of a case to numerous documentaries on Netflix. Now, the genre has made its way onto the popular, social media app TikTok. While some effects of the inevitable migration have been positive, leading to breaks in cases that have been cold for years, in other circumstances, the stories being told have opened wounds for those whose stories are being told without consent.
Anjum Coffland, who lives in St. Charles, Illinois, lost her 17-year-old twin daughters, Brittany and Tiffany, at the hands of her husband, who then shot her and killed himself, in March 2017. Anjum’s heartbreaking 911 call had previously been heard on the news when the tragedy first occurred, but now the call has appeared on TikTok. An unknown user, who has no connection to Anjum or her family, has been posting the videos in what appears to be an attempt to create a kind of miniature crime series on the app, encouraging viewers to keep coming back to hear more of the story of what happened to Coffland and her family.
Earlier this month, Coffland said she noticed she was getting random friend requests and then had several people she knows reach out to tell her that her story had begun circulating on the app. Some of the videos went viral.
“I'm still alive and when I hear those things I feel like they're not understanding what I go through each day,” Coffland told Inside Edition Digital. “Putting stuff out there and me finding out from complete strangers and my friends … It just shakes me to my core and makes me angry that you're gaining followers. It's insensitive.”
Coffland said she wants people to understand that her story isn’t entertainment and she has to continue to live with the trauma of what happened to her.
“This isn't a singing and dancing kind of thing. This is very personal, this is very private,” she said. “This isn't something that happens to people all the time, and as much as I appreciate the messages [of support], don't glorify it. Do not glorify this. This is very heartbreaking for me.”
Unfortunately for Coffland, it doesn’t seem there is much civil legal action that can be taken against TikTokers who gain a following from the stories of others. California civil rights attorney George Khoury said whether someone can file a lawsuit in a case like Coffland’s depends on the intended purpose of the person publishing the information.
“There’s a very strong possibility that this could fall under the right to free speech. This could be considered creative content that someone is publishing,” Khoury said.
In some states, individuals have license rights, which means they have the right to tell their own stories and others can’t use their likeness without their permission. In 1999, Illinois passed the Right of Publicity Act that provides a cause of action for the unauthorized use of a person's “identity” for a “commercial purpose.” However, in the case of publishing someone else’s story on TikTok, there is no direct monetary gain for the person publicizing it. The gain is views and followers.
Michael Mantell, former chief psychologist for the San Diego Police Department, said it’s no surprise that the true crime genre has made its way onto TikTok, considering how popular the genre is.
“It’s the natural extension of playing on smartphones and other digital devices that young people have been doing for many years,” Mantell told Inside Edition Digital. “We are fascinated [by] the inner workings of people, especially when it’s others doing wrong. Look at the way headlines are written. If it bleeds, it leads. The darker the crime, the more it triggers our curiosity. Many law-abiding folks find they just can’t look away. We have an inherent interest in that which is foreign to us, and violence – fortunately – is uncommon behavior to most.”
In general, Mantell said people watch true crime for very specific reasons.
“We all feel like we’re detectives, amateurs solving mysteries, placing ourselves in a crime situation, whistling in the dark to control our anxiety as we fantasize how we’d overcome the danger. Observing crime in the media, on TV for example, allows people to pretend to be detectives and therefore to enjoy figuring out how to decipher, analyze and solve crimes . We build our confidence as we imagine overcoming an attack. This helps us create a sense of control over exciting, uncontrolled danger.”
For some families, telling their own crime stories on TikTok has been positive. Earlier this year, Sarah Turney, whose teen sister Alissa Turney's disappearance in 2001 had never been solved, began posting on the app in hopes to spread awareness about her sister’s case, with a million people ultimately following her account.
Sarah Turney’s father, Michael Turney, which was her sister’s stepfather, was arrested in August on a charge of second-degree murder. He had been a suspect in the case for years, but it wasn’t until Sarah started the TikTok that an arrest was finally made.
“I'm shaking and I'm crying. We did it you guys," she posted after the arrest. "He's been arrested. Omg thank you. #justiceforalissa Never give up hope that you can get justice. It took almost 20 years but we did it."
Michael Turney has pleaded not guilty.
Mantell said in cases like Turney’s, TikTok can be used as an extension of broadcast media to try and secure leads, but notes for many, like Coffland, seeing their story on the app can be re-traumatizing.
“For those who’ve experienced the tragedy of involvement in a crime as a victim or living daily as a powerless grieving family member of a crime victim, more sobering and psychologically devastating experiences may result," he said. "The sensationalism can lead to a profound re-experiencing of loss, feeling violated, of lack of voice and control, hopelessness, unhealthy vulnerability, continued intimidation and a lack of protective privacy."
Regardless of the fact that Coffland doesn’t want her story told in that way, the story remains up on the app. Numerous family members and friends have commented underneath the video, letting the person who posted it know that Coffland doesn’t want it there.
The person who posted the video didn’t respond to Inside Edition Digital’s request for comment. TikTok also did not respond to a request for a comment.
“It's hard to make peace with something when people want to keep bringing it up,” Coffland said.