MIAMI – The disappearance and near-certain death of Gabby Petito and the police search for her boyfriend have sparked a whirlwind online, with many armchair detectives and others sharing tips, possible visions and theories via TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. are doing.
Whether the attention-seeking frenzy and Internet investigative activities helped the investigation remain unclear, but it has illuminated the gap between social media and the public’s fascination with true-crime stories.
Months before her disappearance garnered more than half a billion views on TikTok, Petito, 22, and boyfriend Brian Laundry, 23, set out on a cross-country road trip from Florida over the summer in a van she’d found boho- Was well decorated. Style.
They documented their adventure on video and invited social media users to follow along on the trip, sharing scenes of a happy couple cartwheeling on a beach, hiking mountain trails and in the Utah desert. Camping.
But they had a fight along the way and returned home alone in the laundry van in September. Over the weekend, a body believed to be Pettito’s was discovered on the edge of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Investigators have not said how he died, but the now-missing laundry has been identified as a Person of Interest.
Social media users have been impressed by the case and are eyeing a wealth of online videos and photos for clues.
Joseph Scott Morgan, a professor of forensics at Jacksonville State University and an officer on high-profile murder cases, said, “It has a lot to do with the cross-country journey they were documenting, social distancing on this grand adventure.” Were going to the media.” And he continued: “They are young, they are attractive people.”
Another source of fascination: A police bodycam video released last week shows the couple after being pulled over in Moab, Utah, in August, where the van was seen speeding and hitting a curb. They got into a fight, and Pettito was in tears, Laundry saying tension was building between them as they had been traveling together for months.
Theories and comments gathered steam on Reddit, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter.
Users have delved into Petito’s Spotify music playlists, laundry’s reading habits, and the couple’s digitally bookmarked trails. One TikTok user reported taking up laundry hitchhiking.
And a couple documenting their bus journey on YouTube said they watched some video footage of them from near Grand Teton and saw what they said was the couple’s white van. He posted a picture of it pointing to a big red arrow and wrote, “We found Gabby Petito’s van.” He said investigators were taken to the area where the body was found.
The FBI did not specify what led to the search or whether other suggestions from Internet searchers helped.
Michael Alcazar, a retired New York City detective and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Petito’s Instagram account gave investigators a place to start and became a rich source of social media tips.
“Instagram is like a photo on a carton of milk, except it reaches so many people quickly,” he said.
On the other hand, some users have spread misinformation reporting possible sightings of petito and laundry which turned out to be false.
Hannah Matthews, a TikTok user from Salt Lake City, admitted to being obsessed with the matter, saying she identified with Petito and thought she might be. He has created 14 short videos detailing the principles of what can go wrong and providing updates on the matter. One of them suggests that Petito didn’t write a single Instagram post of his. It has got around 2 million views.
“It seemed like a strange case from the start and after doing more research and (collaborating) with other people on social media, the matter just kept on progressing and getting twists and turns,” she said.
As of Tuesday, the hashtag #gabbypetito had over 650 million views on TikTok. By comparison, #FreeBritney posts about pop star Britney Spears in her bid to end stereotypes garnered 1.9 billion views.
“There are many different complex reasons why people are drawn to it, and it’s not all sinister or malicious or scary,” said Kelly Bolling, professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. True-crime podcast.
He said that people fascinated by such cases are sometimes victims of domestic violence who find that such material can help them deal with their experiences.
“Some people are really drawn to it from a place of healing, or a place of seeking justice for the young woman,” said Boling.
Expressing sympathy for Petito, some found what they see as a racial double standard, complaining that the media and online spies are heavily invested in the case because he is young and white.
“There are a lot of women of color, and especially immigrants, it happens all the time, and we never hear about it,” said Alex Picero, a criminologist at the University of Miami.
In the same state where Petito was found, at least 710 Native Americans were reported missing between 2011 and the end of 2020.
In addition, a gay couple living in a van was reported missing and later shot to death at a camp near Moab, when Petito and her boyfriend were stopped by police there. The deaths of Kylan Schulte and Crystal Turner generated some media coverage but nothing like the Petito affair.
The case also comes at a time when interest in cross-country travel, particularly in vans or recreational vehicles, is at a high, perhaps as a reaction to the forced isolation of people from the COVID-19 outbreak. Picero said the couple’s plan looked like something terrible had happened from a romantic movie.
“There’s this whole air of intrigue in it,” he said. “People have a real fantasy about being able to solve crimes.”
Associated Press writers Barbara Ortute in San Francisco and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida contributed to this report.