TikTok’s Exploitation Of Gabby Petito Highlights Everything Wrong With True Crime Culture
With almost one billion views on TikTok, there's no denying that social media turned Gabby Petito's tragic murder into true crime entertainment.
When 22-year-old ‘van life’ influencer, Gabby Petito, was reported missing on September 11, true crime fanatics had a field day on TikTok.
Over the week that Petito’s disappearance was announced, the frenzied search went into overdrive as people online desperately dissected every last known movement of the influencer. Some analysed the ways that Petito interacted with her fiancé’s Instagram posts before her disappearance, while others looked into her most recently added Spotify tracks.
Basically, TikTok turned the very serious case of Gabby Petito into real-time true-crime entertainment with the #GabbyPetito hashtag amassing over 874 million views in the last 12 days alone.
But while the public story of Gabby Petito captured the world’s attention, some people have exploited the case and trauma for their own benefit. And with authorities confirming that it was in fact Gabby Petito’s body that they found in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park on September 19, TikTok true-crime sleuths still haven’t let up.
So let’s dissect the Gabby Petito case, TikTok’s role in the investigation, and the ethics of true crime culture.
What Happened To Gabby Petito?
On September 11, Gabby Petito was reported missing after the travel influencer didn’t return home from a Long Island to Oregon cross-country trip.
Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, departed for their latest trip in July and were meant to be on the road for four months. So when Laundrie returned to the couple’s home in Florida with the campervan solo on September 1, alarm bells were raised.
According to police, Laundrie had “not made himself available to be interviewed by investigators” and is now “missing” after going for a hike on September 14 and not returning. The FBI has since searched Laundrie’s home for clues while investigators are trying to track down the missing man, who is now considered a person of interest in the case.
On September 19, a body thought to be Gabby Petito’s was found in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. And yesterday morning authorities confirmed that it was in fact Petito, ruling her death a homicide with the cause of death pending final autopsy results.
View this post on Instagram
While what exactly happened to Gabby Petito is still unknown, there have been a number of theories and signs that point to Laundrie potentially being involved in his fiancé’s disappearance.
For example, recently released police bodycam footage from August 12 showed a possible “domestic problem” between the couple. When pulled over in Moab, Utah, a teary Petito mentioned that the couple had been “fighting” and one officer noted that she couldn’t “compose a sentence without needing to wipe away tears, wipe her nose, or rub her knees with her hands.”
According to a police report from the incident, Laundrie claimed that Petito hit him during an argument earlier that day.
Moreover, as the couple regularly documented their travels on social media, it felt odd that updates on both their pages randomly stopped in late August. Even weirder, Petito’s last Instagram post had nothing to do with her travels as her previous photos had been. Instead, it was just a gallery of pictures with no location tag and the caption “Happy Halloween” despite the photo being uploaded on August 26. The couple’s trip was meant to conclude in Oregon on Halloween.
Nicole Schmidt, Petito’s mother, also noted that it was strange that the last call she had from her daughter was on August 24, when the pair would normally speak around three times a week. And even though Petito allegedly sent a message reading “Can you help Stan, I just keep getting his voicemails and missed calls” on August 27, Schmidt has doubts over who actually sent the texts because Petito would never refer to her grandfather by his first name.
What Has Social Media Been Doing With The Case?
Due to the public nature of Gabby Petito’s life and career — and the fact that Petito is a pretty, young white woman — it’s no surprise that the travel influencer captured the attention of true crime lovers online.
But while Petito’s family were desperately looking and hoping that a beloved member of their family was found safe, people on TikTok were picking apart every minute detail about the missing influencer and her last known movements.
Dissecting Gabby Petito’s last exchanges with her family, flagging her hair colour was inconsistent with previous photos, and noting the sudden lack of location tags on her images, people turned Petito’s very real plight into a real-life Cluedo whodunnit case for a few TikTok likes.
Take Hayley Toumaian, a woman who has so far posted a whopping 70 videos about Gabby Petito in just six days, for example. Prior to posting about Petito’s disappearance, Toumaian had 170,000 followers and would often post clips about food, Disneyland, and her engagement averaging a few thousand views a post.
After jumping from showing off a new egg cooker to focusing in on insignificant things like the “haunting songs” that were added to Petito’s Spotify playlist and the influencer’s “cryptic Halloween caption”, Toumaian quickly made Gabby Petito her brand on TikTok. And once Toumaian shifted to her content to solely Petito updates, her average view count skyrocketed into the millions and she jumped up to a whopping 650,000 followers.
When questioned over why she was so interested in the case, Toumaian denied claims that it was to “get clout and followers”. Rather, Toumaian said that it was because she’s just “very similar” to Gabby because they’re close in age, YouTubers, and are both engaged. Toumaian also added that she’s “loves listening to true crime podcasts” so figured she would share her research on TikTok, too.
Then there’s the Instagram “community” dedicated to Gabby Petitio, which has amassed 73,000 followers on Instagram since its launch a week ago. Their goal? To post aesthetic updates about the Petito case in pretty fonts on pastel backgrounds to encourage people to share their content on Instagram.
I think what’s so weird about the Gabby Petito movement is how completely defined it is by the aesthetics and incentives of Instagram and TikTok. Everything being posted is completely optimized by users for their own internet clout. It’s frankly sociopathic and insanely grim. https://t.co/JPsrvfYJRQ
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) September 20, 2021
Strangely, instead of taking a username like @GabbyPetitoUpdates or @JusticeForGabbyPetitio, this infographic page decided conveniently settled on @Gabby.Petito. This means if you Google ‘Gabby Petito Instagram’ you are directed to this account instead of the influencer’s own page @gabspetito, which is equal parts creepy and opportunistic.
The anonymous student behind the account told Jezebel that she created the page because she “understood the importance of utilising a platform, such as Instagram, for the better good; in this case, spreading awareness”.
But when criticism poured in over the style of the page and the name, the account owner claimed it was “in no way… meant to disrespect Gabby nor her family“.
“I agree, the style is definitely not a traditional way to go about [it], but the reason why I decided to create posts like that was in the effort to share the posts on their story,” she shared.
“Our page is not to impersonate her. We have updated our bio and linked her Instagram account,” the account owner added, still choosing to not change their page name. “We do apologise.”
The Issues That Come With Amateur Online Investigators
But this isn’t to say everyday citizens raising awareness for cases like Gabby Petito’s isn’t the right thing to do. Mounting public interest can often put pressure on police to pool resources into finding a missing person faster.
After all, there are literally at least 710 Indigenous people in Wyoming, where Petitio’s body was located, who have still yet to be found in the last nine years — yet most don’t know their names. This really boils down to Missing White Woman Syndrome, a term coined by journalist Gwen Ifill that explains the media’s obsessive, and disproportionate, coverage of missing white, upper-middle-class women over people of colour.
But this isn’t Gabby Petitio’s fault. She lived in the public eye and, as a result, left people with a world of content to dissect. However, just because the content and story exist doesn’t mean it needs to be commodified by thousands of people online who are trying to boost their followers and gain money from the inflated view counts.
The real issue here is how insensitive it is to happily pick apart a dead woman’s life for likes while her family grieve the loss of a daughter, sister, and friend.
Hey, true crime junkies, maybe you shouldn’t look so excited about Gabby Petito’s case when you post on YouTube and TikTok; she’s a human being, NOT a murder mystery board game.
— Big bag bussin' Bill Murray (@MknightSolomon) September 18, 2021
In fact, despite Petito being confirmed dead, some are still using her for content with TikTok psychics facing hot water for trying to “channel” Gabby Petito’s spirit.
For example, in the last six days Kelly Ferro, who goes by @kellythemagicalmedium on TikTok, has created 19 videos about Gabby Petito from a medium’s perspective. Since Petito’s body was located, Ferro has continued to make videos “tapping into Brian [Laundrie’s] energy to see where he might be located” and claimed that she had successfully used her “psychic abilities to help locate Gabby Petitio”.
Others have just been so insensitive in the ways they’ve excitedly recapped the events surrounding Petitio’s disappearance with trending sounds and memes, that people on TikTok have even had to call out the ethics behind this amateur “tone-deaf” true crime sleuthing.
While people write comments about how exciting it is to be “living out a true-crime documentary IRL” and note how “TikTok detectives are basically real-life Elle Woods”, Jessica Dean has spoofed the concerning way people have turned Petito’s death into a form of entertainment.
“Oh, you haven’t heard of Gabby Petito? Oh my god, girl, you are missing out. This stuff is so good,” Dean says, mocking the countless people making TikToks about Petito.
“I made a 28-part monetised series on my TikTok all about it, going over every single detail, including her Spotify playlist. I just dig up every inch of this poor girl’s life for my personal entertainment.”
“Yeah, that viral tweet about her hair and how it doesn’t line up? Yeah, I’m like Elle Woods, she would be so proud of me. I’m living my Elle Woods fantasy.”
But even beyond the amateur internet detectives crafting their own twisted theories online, some have even created baseless narratives to link other murders in the Moab area to Petito’s disappearance in order to drum up engagement on their pages. Of course, officials found that there were no links between the cases but it demonstrates just how easy it is for misinformation to spread on places like TikTok.
The spread of unverified information is even happening with Brian Laundrie, with theories about the books he read during the couple’s only travel vlog and the specific way Laundrie said he didn’t have a phone when the couple was pulled over in Moab moving at lightning speeds on TikTok. But while it may be true that many signs do point to Brian Laundrie potentially being a suspect in the homicide of Gabby Petito, his involvement hasn’t officially been confirmed yet.
We’ve seen in the past how online speculation and wild theories can lead to unjust harassment and misidentification in past cases. One notable example was during the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing where Sunil Tripathi, an innocent missing Indian-American student, was incorrectly identified as one of the terrorists responsible for the explosion on Reddit.
The internet’s obsession with vigilantism led to an online witchhunt with the page dedicated to finding Tripathi being flooded with angry messages and his family being called incessantly.
Sadly, the smear campaign only ended when the real bombers were caught and Tripathi’s body was found in a river. As a result, the admins responsible for the FindBostonBombers sub-Reddit were forced to issue a formal apology to Tripathi’s family for the unnecessary pain caused all because people ran with the unverified information that was shared on social media.
But Social Media Involvement Isn’t Always Bad
This isn’t to say that all help from everyday citizens is unwelcome. Famously, Don’t Fuck With Cats killer Luka Magnotta was caught and arrested thanks to the help of the dedicated members of the ‘Find the Kitten Vacuumer…for Great Justice’ Facebook group.
Similarly, in Gabby Petito’s case, there have been a number of seemingly helpful revelations that may have potentially assisted police in locating Petito’s body and their investigation into Brian Laundrie.
In one viral TikTok, for example, Miranda Baker claimed that she and her boyfriend allegedly gave Laundrie a lift on August 29 after spotting him hitchhiking alone in Grand Teton National Park — the place where Petito’s body was found.
In the video, Baker claimed that she had reached out to police after seeing videos of Laundrie and Petito on TikTok. The North Point Police Department police did confirm that they did speak to Baker about the encounter and were “potentially utilising her info into our timeline”.
Also potentially helping in the case, were travel vloggers Red, White & Bethune, who went viral on TikTok and YouTube after claiming that they spotted the couple’s van while they were travelling in Grand Teton in August 27, too.
Jenn Bethune of Red, White & Bethune told Fox & Friends that she only decided to review her footage from the day after someone tagged her in a social media post calling for people who were in the park to check their footage over the end of August.
“I got chills all over my body and ran right straight back to my laptop, got my GoPro footage, and lo and behold, Gabby’s van was on there,” Bethune said. “The reason why we noticed the van is because we’re from Florida and the van had Florida plates and we wanted to stop by and say hi.”
However, while social media has been helpful in these specific cases, public information officer Josh Taylor from the North Point Police Department explained that an “influx of tips” from social media can sometimes hinder an investigation, too.
“Social media has helped us solve a lot of crimes,” Taylor told BuzzFeed News. “You have to take the good with the bad; You might get a thousand completely insane pieces of information, but that one piece that might be the missing piece to the puzzle, it’s important.”
But even though everyday citizens may have that “one piece” of helpful information for a case, Taylor doesn’t understand people don’t head to the police with information before flocking to social media.
“It looks like their vehicle… but we learn about it through them posting on YouTube, talking about it,” Taylor said, referring to a monetised vlog that Red, White & Bethune uploaded on September 19. “Why wouldn’t you just send that to us? And say, ‘This might be helpful to our investigation,’ instead of giving a 14-minute commentary on [it]?”
Similarly, Todd Shipley, president of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA) and retired senior detective, told Mashable that an excessive number of unverified tips waste critical resources during an investigation.
“Sometimes [social media users] can point [investigators] to where the evidence is, because law enforcement may not find that immediately,” Shipley explained.
“The problem is that when they get 1,000 people doing that, then a lot of stuff gets lost in the pools… it’s the noise that causes law enforcement to use resources ineffectively.”
Unfortunately, the sad reality of the obsession with modern true crime culture is that Gabby Petito is not the first person to have her life publicly dissected for views and entertainment, and she likely won’t be the last.
One can only hope that the next person who is tragically killed and placed on the world stage like this will be shown a little more respect before amateur investigators milk their story for everything it’s worth. Or, if that aspect of true crime culture won’t change, we can dream that the thousands of missing POC are given the same energy that;s shown to white women like Gabby Petito.
Michelle Rennex is a senior writer at Junkee. She tweets at @michellerennex