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TikTok true crime sleuths put Ruby Franke in their crosshairs, some spreading misinformation

SHARE TikTok true crime sleuths put Ruby Franke in their crosshairs, some spreading misinformation

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Allegations of negligence and child abuse have long plagued Ruby Franke, with nearly 18,000 people signing a 2020 Change.org petition urging authorities to open an investigation.

But in the weeks since the YouTube family blogger and her business associate, Jodi Hildebrandt, were both arrested and charged with six counts of aggravated child abuse, Franke has become the target of TikTok’s true crime sleuths.

Franke was arrested on Aug. 30 after police say her emaciated 12-year-old child escaped Hildebrant’s home, with open wounds and duct tape around his arms and legs. She is currently being held without bail in Washington County along with Hildebrant. Each count of child abuse carries a possible sentence of between one and 15 years in prison.

National media outlets quickly latched on to the story, as did their audiences. During Franke’s first court appearance, thousands of people tried to tune into the routine proceeding, resulting in an unruly virtual courtroom where members of the public went off mute to berate each other in expletive-laden rants.

Some of the attendees were creators on TikTok, where a mix of investigative reporting, conspiracy theories, hot takes and unsubstantiated allegations about Franke are going viral.

As of Wednesday, the #rubyfranke hashtag has 1.2 billion views on TikTok; #rubyfrankeisabadparent has surpassed 167 million views; #rubyfrankeishot has over 20 million views.

Franke’s once popular YouTube channel “8 Passengers,” which amassed nearly 2.5 million followers, has been defunct for several months. And in a statement, YouTube confirmed that two other channels associated with Franke have also been deleted.

But content creators, some who racked up millions of views posting about the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, or Bryan Kohberger and the four slain University of Idaho students, have reposted old clips of Franke stitched with their own opinions.

Some videos name her young children, who have spent much of their life and personal information documented online by their mother, but are currently undergoing a sensitive custody process with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, or DFCS.

Others make bold, unsubstantiated claims about Franke, accusing her of crimes she has not been charged with, like kidnapping and sexual assault.

One post from the TikTok user “joysparkleshine” shows an older video of Franke tickling one of her kids on his bed; when the child tells Franke to stop, she appears to spank him.

“She is hitting a private area,” the TikToker says in a video with more than 170,000 views.

“Now that she’s made accusations of (sexual assault) with all of the other abuse accusations we have to look at this differently and my question is, are we seeing some type of (sexual assault) here or the signs of it growing? I don’t know, what do you guys think? Sound off in the comments, tell me your thoughts, click the plus sign, I’ve got more coming,” the creator says at the end of the video.  

The “accusations” of sexual assault stem from a Daily Mail report that alleges Franke made claims to a judge during a recent DCFS child welfare hearing about allegations of sexual abuse in the home.

The Deseret News has been unable to confirm the report, as documents and transcripts from child welfare hearings are protected. According to sources familiar with the matter, if Franke did indeed make those claims, DCFS is required to pass those allegations along to the local police agency, who will then investigate. If the allegations are credible, detectives will recommend charges to the Utah County attorney. As of Tuesday night, the Utah County Attorney’s Office was not investigating the allegations, a source confirmed.

Other TikTok accounts speculate on the specifics of Franke’s arrest and the evidence discovered — a popular theory is that Franke’s children were discovered in a panic room, a locked, safe room often installed to protect against home invasions. “You can hear them talking about where the children were being held (panic room under the garage)” reads text in a video with over 61,000 views.

“Were the rest of Ruby Franke’s children found in a panic room?” reads text from another video, this one with nearly 1.4 million views.

In dispatch audio obtained by the Deseret News, officers are heard talking about a panic room in Hildebrandt’s house.

“There’s a panic room inside the garage,” an officer says. “My guess is that would be where they’re at.”

But nothing in the audio suggests children were found in the room, like many TikTok creators allege. Instead, Franke’s 12-year-old escaped the house through a window, according to police, and in the original 911 call he tells a neighbor that his sibling is not “detained” at Hildebrandt’s home, and able to walk freely. That child was “found to be malnourished,” charging documents read.

And some videos spread falsehoods, like the claim that Franke’s children are currently suing her for defamation.

A search of the Utah and federal courts database shows no such lawsuit exists.

The frenzy around Franke is reminiscent of the murder of Gabby Petito, a young woman killed by her boyfriend Brian Laundrie during a cross country road trip. TikTok and YouTube sleuths are credited with identifying Laundrie’s van in an unrelated YouTube video, leading police to narrow their search for Petito. Her body was found just 1,000 feet from the van, according to police.

But social media virality has its downsides — consider the quadruple homicide of four University of Idaho students, which remains the subject of millions of views on TikTok. A professor at the university recently sued social media influencer Ashley Guillard for defamation after she accused the professor of being involved in the murders, according to a federal complaint.

Or the case of Lori Vallow Daybell, the mother convicted of murdering her children in Rexburg, Idaho. The quaint, rural town dubbed “America’s Family Community” became synonymous with the murders as bloggers, social media influencers and true crime fans flocked to Rexburg. This past spring, the rural neighborhood where the children were killed was still seeing visitors, sometimes stopping by a nearby memorial to take selfies.

Judge Steven Boyce moved Vallow Daybell’s trial across the state to Ada County over concerns the court would be unable to seat a jury because of the publicity. Cameras were later banned from the trial, and it took nearly a week to find 18 jurors after dozens were disqualified for having prior knowledge of the case.