People living in the Lancashire village where Nicola Bulley went missing have hit out at the “ghouls” arriving at the scene to take selfies or peddle conspiracy theories over the past fortnight.
Hundreds of people have arrived at St Michael’s on Wyre since the 45-year-old was last seen on the morning of 27 January. She vanished within a 10-minute window while walking her dog, Willow, near the River Wyre close to her home in Inskip. Her phone, which was still connected to a work call, was found on a nearby bench.
Since then, local people have endured social media influencers and conspiracy theorists traipsing through the beauty spot – hindering the search with unwanted assistance – or taking photos “as though it’s a film set”.
Others break into empty buildings and go through gardens at night in the hope of finding her.
On Friday, Bulley’s friends and family met in St Michael’s to stand in the road with banners and placards featuring her photograph in the hope of jogging the memory of any witnesses.
Bulley’s friend Emma White said:“We just need Nikki home for her two beautiful little girls who need their mummy.”
While Lancashire constabulary remain focused on a nine-mile stretch of the tidal River Wyre, where they believe she may have fallen in, thousands of people following the case from their laptops think the police have got it wrong.
One local person said: “They bring their kids because they’ve seen it on TV. They might start by saying ‘oh it’s absolutely terrible’, but the next second they want you to tell them where the bench is so they can take a picture.
“It’s quite frightening and it’s a massive distraction for police who should be just focusing on finding Nikki.”
On Wednesday night, police issued a dispersal order to help tackle antisocial behaviour, but it is a difficult task when social media platforms incentivise livestreaming, rewarding influencers for attracting an audience of thousands while they poke around the scene, occasionally harassing other people.
Aaron Williams, licensed drone pilot who was taking videos in St Michael’s for his YouTube channel, condemned these invasive videos but said people had asked to “see how long that stretch of the river is”. They wanted “detail” he said, to help them investigate and post their theories online.
One Facebook group has amassed 25,000 members in just a few days. It was set up by 18-year-old Ben Thornbury, a college student in Wiltshire who has no connection to Bulley.
“The reason the group was created was because people were going to her personal pages and commenting stuff below them and it’s just disrespectful, people saying stuff like she’ll never come home. And obviously nobody shuts that down, like Facebook doesn’t step in and shut it down,” he said.
But the group grew far bigger than he expected and within days he had drafted in 15 volunteer moderators working around the clock to remove “vile comments” and misinformation.
Thornbury said: “When they see something on another group, it gets screenshotted and posted somewhere else within seconds and some of the theories are not right. It gets spread like wildfire but people don’t check the sources.
“They assume stuff and they just believe everything they read.”
Members of the public have imagined and embellished details of Bulley’s life. They have also trawled the family’s finances, while psychic mediums worldwide have contacted relatives and the media. Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, in particular has had his character attacked by “body language experts”.
These actions exacerbate the online abuse aimed at Bulley’s friends and family.
Many people posting about the case online appear to have been sucked in through well-worn conspiracy theory mechanisms, with the lack of new information creating a vacuum for people to think there is more to the case than the public are being told.
A woman living in Oxfordshire, who also shared anti-vaccine misinformation on Facebook, said she was able to “follow every aspect” because she was self-employed. She was adamant it was an “inside job” involving people close to Bulley after watching videos online, including one, shared thousands of times across different platforms, suggesting Bulley was kidnapped and taken through a nonexistent secret tunnel under the river to a nearby house.
Most of the more vocal speculators are based in other parts of the UK and have never visited the area but there are some who live locally who say they are frustrated at Lancashire constabulary for what they perceive is a lack of thoroughness.
Jamie McCormick, a graphic designer who lives a few miles away in Cleveleys, believes after visiting the scene there is “no evidence” she fell into the river, though he denies he is an armchair detective.
“If this is a case of a woman falling into a river and the police are tired of speculation, then just release the information that proves she’s in the river,” he said.
Many commenters told the Guardian they believed Peter Faulding, who runs the forensic diving company Specialist Group International, when he said after a day searching the Wyre it was “not feasible” Bulley had fallen in.
He arrived by helicopter on Monday, having offered his services free of charge, and left on Wednesday after meeting Bulley’s family to explain he thought the water was too shallow at the edge for her to have been swept away.
Faulding was publicly criticised for the number of media interviews he did and the timing of his aid, which came days after he published a book. His opinion on the case was countered by the lead investigator, Supt Sally Riley, who said: “Clearly Mr Faulding isn’t included within all the investigation detail any more than the members of the public are.”
In cases where someone is missing, rarely do the public get the full picture on the evidence being examined in real time. Lancashire constabulary said the scale of the missing person inquiry was “unprecedented”, involving 40 detectives and 500 lines of inquiry.