How the Kiely Rodni case turned into a nightmarish internet witch hunt

SFGATE managing editor Katie Dowd on the worst impulses of the internet coming to life during a tragedy.

Kiely Rodni, 16, has been missing since Aug. 6, 2022 after disappearing while attending at party at a campground in Truckee.

Kiely Rodni, 16, has been missing since Aug. 6, 2022 after disappearing while attending at party at a campground in Truckee.

Placer County Sheriff's Office/Handout

From the beginning, the disappearance of Kiely Rodni had all the makings of a major national news story. A sweet, smiling 16-year-old vanishes without a trace from a rowdy high school party. Concerned law enforcement announces it’s possible she was the victim of an abduction. Days pass and clues fail to materialize. And, in the absence of details from investigators, the internet rabble fills the void.

I’ve covered nearly a hundred missing persons cases and followed countless more, but I’ve rarely seen an online furor as heartless as the one surrounding Kiely. Within a few days, the internet speculation and conjecture became its own content machine. Some YouTube channels pumped out multiple videos a day, spending hours speculating wildly about the case. One channel even livestreamed an interview with one of Kiely’s friends, a minor who should be protected from, not subjected to, the scrutiny of strangers.

Searching Kiely’s name on YouTube yields a horrifying array of clickbait thumbnails and titles, like “KIELY RODNI THINGS ARE NOT ADDING UP!” and “How is this not a red flag?” They weave elaborate conspiracy theories, many centering on the actions of some of Kiely’s friends the night she went missing, accusing them of lying, leaving out important information or otherwise conspiring about Kiely's disappearance.

These "theories" do not bear repeating, because they have no basis in reality. But the names of multiple minors are now all over the internet, in YouTube comments and Twitter, Instagram and TikTok replies, linking them to the tragedy that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. The guilt they no doubt feel for losing track of their friend at a party — and who among us hasn’t experienced that at least once in their adolescence? — is now compounded by an internet paper trail of people accusing them of intentionally harming Kiely. 

Even well-meaning people piled on, tagging sheriff’s offices repeatedly on social media asking them to follow up on leads that were already done and cleared. No friend of Kiely’s has ever been a person of interest; it’s long been evident that the most likely scenario was that a 16-year-old got in her car, possibly intoxicated, and made a mistake that killed her. 

The Placer County Sheriff’s Office received nearly 2,000 tips in two weeks. Every single one needed a follow-up, and you can bet that at least some of those tips came from breathless strangers who read a bad theory on the internet. A percentage of those tips represents precious resources and time wasted. There are real-life implications for online fearmongering.

Because this is real life. Left in the wake of Kiely’s tragedy are friends and family who must now grapple with a tremendous amount of suffering, pain and trauma. Many of them are teenagers whose lives will never be the same. Now knowing — at least more clearly — what happened to Kiely, those YouTube videos filled with hurtful conjecture ought to be deleted by their creators. It’s the least they can do now.

A missing person is not content. They’re not a TV show or a whodunit with a twist ending. Their friends and family are not characters in a melodrama. 

The rabble has already moved onto the next unsolved case. But Kiely’s loved ones cannot.