In a society dominated by depressing headlines and negative sentiments about everything and everyone, it’s become increasingly difficult to find moments of optimism. The recent upsurge in the popularity of true crime documentaries may seem like further contributions to a gloomy, bleak picture of society today. However, the reality seems to be much more positive and hopeful, given how such content is also generating empathy in audiences and fuelling activism for change.  

Take Fyre Festival for example, the now iconic failed event that seems to embody the faults of today’s selfie-taking society. Yet Hulu’s Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened  both also uncovered the sobering truth of who and what were overlooked in the memes, headlines and hashtags that went viral during the festival’s demise. The most affecting footage belongs to Maryann Rolle, a Bahamian restaurant owner who lost tens of thousands of dollars when the organisers of the festival fled the island and failed to pay the local workers.

Audiences are now better able to empathise with the painful experiences that Fyre Festival induced and are outraged by the financial burdens placed on Bahamians. Nearly 10,000 people took it upon themselves to help those affected by the failed event, in a crowdfunding drive. The GoFundMe campaign has raised well over $200,000 to date, recouping nearly all of Ms Rolle’s losses. “People have responded well,” she said in a New York Times article. “What a wonderful world we live in where people are so generous.”  Looking at the Fyre Festival debacle from this perspective highlights how audiences are no longer just consuming content but are motivated to take a step further and to seek justice.

The continued fascination with true crime stories and documentaries on perceived breakdowns of justice could be having a transformative effect in our society. In a recent conversation with The Guardian, Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vice president of original documentary and comedy, believes that their subscribers are now consuming shows in a new way. “The shows really do drive you to want to engage in a conversation; we’re seeing that happen more and more on social media where there’s no time zone or geographical restrictions. That’s where we can create a cultural moment and where the film-makers’ work becomes part of the conversation and the zeitgeist.”

Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer, exemplifies the ways in which effective storytelling of true events can trigger an active response from viewers. The 10-episode docuseries, watched by 19.35M viewers in the States alone, received an overwhelming response from viewers who believe he was framed. Within a week of the series being released, a petition asking for Steven Avery to be pardoned attracted more than 300,000 signatures from people in 144 countries. By highlighting the flaws in the system, true-crime documentaries can increasingly become catalysts for positive change.

Podcasts too are changing the very nature of reporting and even solving crimes today. Listeners are becoming actively involved, connecting with a growing network of criminal justice reform advocates to transform their interests in cases into activism.

Certain shows, such as The Teacher’s Pet, have succeeded in changing the direction of the cases they’ve covered, by discovering new evidence, and bringing new light to old information in a way that prompts courts to revisit previously closed convictions. With over 28 million downloads worldwide, The Teacher’s Pet  has gained a devoted listenership. They are keen to bring injustice to light in the 1982 case around the disappearance of Lynette Dawson, who was allegedly murdered by her former husband, Chris. After 36 years of speculation, he was arrested for her murder in December 2018, thanks to fresh evidence uncovered by the series.

In Australia, volunteer crime reporting network Crime Stoppers has said the rise in popularity of true crime podcasts is impacting the number of anonymous tips provided by the community, jumping from 12,845 in 2012 to 24,630 reports in 2018. This is yet another example of the trend of open-source casework in true crime, where journalists and reporters highlight flawed convictions and get the public invested in taking an-in-depth look at where the justice system has gone wrong.

Beyond just entertaining audiences, documentaries and true crime podcasts are becoming more influential in transforming people’s attention into activism. Audiences are no longer interested in just passively consuming these stories, they want to actively respond, and in doing so, drive positive social change. And that, in an era of disinformation, is a welcome trend indeed.