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How Gabby Petito’s Killing Went Viral

True crime enthusiasts have always been around, but the internet has taken amateur sleuthing to new heights.

Posted on September 21, 2021, at 6:46 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; Instagram/gabspetito, Youtube

Growing up in the 2000s, I felt as if I were constantly surrounded by missing white women and girls. Wherever I went, they smiled at me — from the cover of magazines, newspapers, and TV screens. Each case seemed more mysterious and tragic than the last: JonBenét Ramsey, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway. I became a true crime obsessive before I was in high school.

Of course, I’m not unique. True crime is an American obsession, particularly among women. Since the OJ Simpson trial made murder cases primetime events in the mid-'90s, people have spent countless hours dissecting the lives of the pretty, young white victims we catapult to fame. Channels such as Court TV, HLN, and Oxygen became de facto true crime networks to feed the insatiable need for these kinds of stories.

After the Serial podcast premiered in 2014, true crime obsession and amateur sleuthing crossed over into high-brow territory and became even more mainstream. Soon, anyone with a computer and an investigative mind could spend hours on forums such as Websleuths and Reddit, mining the internet and court records to try and track down missing persons or solve decades-old cold cases. Some amateur podcasters, with zero journalistic or law enforcement experience, even set out to solve crimes authorities had been unable to figure out. Some people have had a fair amount of success in catching new breaks in cold cases, leading to fame and fortune for the hosts.

So it was only a matter of time before America’s true crime obsession collided with new media like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. The case of 22-year-old Gabby Petito marks a new chapter in amateur true crime sleuthing.

Besides the fact that — like almost every “famous” crime victim — Petito was young, beautiful, and white, it appears that some of the initial intrigue around her case is in part because she lived so publicly.

Petito wasn’t an influencer, despite the fact that many media outlets have called her one. She had made one YouTube video for her channel, Nomadic Statik, and had fewer than 15,000 Instagram followers before Sept. 13, when her profile first began being tracked by the analytics website Social Blade (her account now has nearly 1 million followers). However, Petito seemed to aspire to become a nomadic lifestyle content creator.

The past few years have seen an explosion of trendy #vanlife accounts — usually white hipster couples who preach values like sustainability and eschew material things in favor of living more authentically and in nature. These accounts are framed as idyllic and aspirational. It seems Petito had wanted to be one of these happy and content road warriors herself. According to reports, she had saved up for months for the trip, and once she was on the road, she posted frequently to her Instagram account, carefully curating her feed and using hashtags like #vanlife.

So, when the Petito family realized that her fiancé and travel partner, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, had returned home without her and they reported her missing on Sept. 11, large swaths of her life were already available for public consumption. Only adding to the intrigue was many people’s complicated feelings about #vanlife and their obsession with wanting to know how things really are for these idyllic-looking influencers behind the scenes.

These two factors created a perfect storm. People were already primed to be interested in Petito’s life, and her public social media presence gave sleuths a wealth of information. True crime obsessives love to do their own digging, and in Petito’s case, there was so much to look at. Each Instagram post now took on a darker cast. Did her hair look different in this photo? Was this photo staged? With Petito, online detectives had YouTube footage and countless photos to dissect.

The case also took off because it initially seemed to be a mystery. While Petito’s family reported her missing on Sept. 11, they had not been in contact with her since the last week of August. Laundrie had returned home to Florida on Sept. 1 in the couple’s van without Petito, and authorities said they had not spoken with him about her disappearance. Last week, they named Laundrie a person of interest. On Tuesday, the FBI announced that a body found on Sunday had been positively identified as Petito, and the case is now being treated as a homicide.

Soon, people on TikTok and Instagram began sharing their theories about the timing of Petito’s disappearance, combing through her Instagram page, which was last updated on Aug. 25. As the algorithm pushed more and more of these videos into people’s feeds, there was suddenly an avalanche of interest in the case. People following the case began to form their own theories and post their own videos, and the virality snowballed. A woman named Miranda Baker posted a TikTok claiming to have picked up Laundrie as he was hitchhiking in late August, which went mega-viral (she also passed the information off to police). Other #vanlife bloggers also began posting about the case. And since #vanlife bloggers live so publicly, the information they shared went even more and more viral, contributing to the churning machine.

It may seem that the Petito case and its virality is some sort of new and strange internet phenomenon, but the way it is being consumed is not new or original at all. It’s the format that is different. There is no real difference between the fervor that drives someone to tune in to primetime to “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the biggest cases of the early aughts and what these social media sleuths are doing today.

A big difference, however, is the power of the internet. The internet is not a passive medium, it is an active one. Now, true crime fans don’t just watch someone else dissect the minutiae of a case — they are the ones doing the dissecting, and many feel as if their amateur sleuthing is just as valuable, if not more so, than the work of actual detectives.

On Instagram, accounts like @gabby.petito, @findgabbypetito, and @findgabspetito have cropped up to dissect every aspect of Petito’s life via her Instagram posts and share theories with other obsessives. The hashtag “Gabby Petito” on TikTok has nearly 700 million views. On these accounts and in these videos, the content creators ask followers to vote in polls like “Do you think Brian is still in the US or he crossed the border?” They share “Instagram aesthetic” graphics and drawings of Petito that people can post in their stories and share photos of roadside memorials for Petito. They obsessively share surveillance videos and photos they claim could be Laundrie, trying to track his movements before he returned home, and aerial footage they claim shows authorities finding Petito’s body in a remote area.

While the accounts at first were calling for people to raise awareness and search for Petito, since authorities found her body on Sunday, they have transitioned to searching for Laundrie (who has since vanished himself) and calling for justice. As the case has gone more and more viral, traditional influencers have also started posting about it, asking followers for their opinions and sharing their own polls along the lines of “Do you think Brian’s parents helped him?” and “I think Brian did it, what do you think?”

Now, true crime fans don’t just watch someone else dissect the minutiae of a case — they are the ones doing the dissecting. 

There are two ways to read all of this social media activity surrounding the case. On the one hand, it does seem grotesque to tap through slide after slide from influencers sharing their theories on an ongoing, active case. The perfectly designed for Instagram graphics shared by the “find Gabby” accounts could be read as crass, or clout chasing. On TikTok and Instagram, some women have begun to speak out about how tasteless they find all the amateur sleuths, and others have pointed out that nonwhite missing women are never mentioned on prominent Instagram accounts. (It’s also hard not to imagine that defense attorneys will use the wild internet speculation in the eventual trial, arguing that the jury pool has been hopelessly tainted.)

But when I shared on my Instagram stories that I felt a little weird seeing so many style bloggers post “theories” about the case, I got a surprising level of vitriol from some of my followers, who said there was nothing wrong with people trying to help bring awareness to a crime, and people should be able to discuss current events if they want to.

It was then that I realized I was looking at the situation all wrong, and that to finger wag at these accounts was missing the point. This weirdness I, and so many others, feel about using true crime as entertainment is as old as the genre itself. To be a “fan” of true crime is to constantly wrestle with the feeling that you are exploiting someone else’s tragedy for your own personal gain, and no amount of justifying it can really make that hard truth go away.

The one big change, though, is the accessibility the internet provides for these cases. Now, anyone can be Nancy Grace, spreading true (or questionable) theories like wildfire and significantly changing public perception of what a case is really about, or what really happened, without having to answer to any real authority. True crime fans can be instrumental in getting a case back in the public eye or bringing justice to a mishandled investigation, but they also can lead to a worrying amount of disinformation and bias on a global scale, and it can be hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

The “find Gabby” people may very well have led authorities to take her case more seriously and create more urgency in bringing her home, but it’s hard not to imagine what the impact of true crime stories becoming viral in real time will have now. People will be jockeying to have their loved ones become a hashtag, and the media will turn our ongoing national obsession with dead white women into an even bigger, and dicier, proposition. ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.