Jessica Dean, 25, lived in the same neighborhood as the girls convicted in the infamous Slender Man stabbing in 2014. Her younger brother was friends with the perpetrators and the victim. She herself had known everyone involved in that case.
So Dean has never been able to consume true crime as a genre of entertainment; it hits too close to home, she told BuzzFeed News. And when she observed the recent fixation and social media frenzy surrounding the Gabby Petito case, she felt she needed to speak up.
Petito, a 22-year-old #VanLife influencer, went missing last month while on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, who returned to his home in Florida on Sept. 1 without her. Officials recently discovered human remains believed to belong to Petito. Laundrie remains a person of interest in the case. Police are now trying to locate him in Florida after his family said that they have not seen him since last Tuesday.
Over the weekend, Dean posted a TikTok calling out what she believes to be insensitive behavior happening on the platform. She portrays online sleuths who are quick and gleeful to share updates and conspiracies about the developing case.
"Oh, you haven't heard of Gabby Petito? Oh my god, girl, you are missing out. This stuff is so good," she spoofs in her video that's been viewed over half a million times. "I made a 28-part monetized 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."
Dean told BuzzFeed News that because of the trauma of living through the Slender Man case when she was in high school, and being there for her brother, it "dramatically altered" how she watches high-profile crimes play out across media channels.
"It was pretty intense and difficult to deal with," she said about that chapter of her life. "My younger brother is autistic and so that added a layer of complexity to trying to help him process what happened. Just seeing the direct impact the crime had on people who weren't even involved ... it dramatically altered how I consume and analyze true crime as a genre as a whole."
She said she's seen several TikToks that have gone viral about the Petito case that she finds to be "tremendously insensitive" to real-life events that are unfolding.
"A lot of videos would start with things, like, 'Omg, guys, we are watching a true crime episode unfold in real life,' or people saying, 'I can’t wait to be a part of the Netflix documentary. Someone should get the movie rights to this before someone else does,'" she gave as examples.
There have been countless videos pushed to the app's For You Page with unverified reports and open speculation about what happened between the couple. In one TikTok, Dean noted, the user compared herself to Elle Woods from Legally Blonde to laud herself for her personal detective work on the case.
"From the bottom of my heart, I want to go into any video I see assuming they mean well and they want the best possible outcome, but it's so hard to believe they actually care when they're smiling and laughing [in their videos]," she said.
Dean said there is a kind of desensitizing effect that happens on social media when tragic real-life events get conflated with entertainment and are then leveraged for others to grow a following on their accounts.
"[I've seen TikToks] that would go viral, and they would make an update video saying everything they said in the [original] video was incorrect but they never bother to take the video down because now it's gone viral and they don't want to lose those views," she said.
Dean also described the rush to know the latest information about the Petito case as giving people a kind of "high."
"I don’t think they know this consciously, but I think there are a lot of creators who are covering her case who want to be the first person who finds the new clue," she said. "As soon as you’re the first person to bring up something that no one’s thought of or seen before, that is an immediate ticket to go viral. I think a lot of people are getting high off of that and are trying to capitalize off of that, whether or not they realize that."
Social media has played a major part in how the Petito case is being investigated. TikTok user @mirandabaker_ is now reportedly working with police after she posted several videos alleging she had given a ride to Petito's fiancé.
The North Port Police Department is actively investigating events of the Florida leg of the couple's cross-country trip. Public information officer Josh Taylor told BuzzFeed News the department has received "an influx of tips" about viral videos and posts from people who allege to have seen Petito and Laundrie and/or their white van, including the TikTok from @mirandabaker_.
The role that social media has played is mostly helpful, he said, but at times it can derail the investigative process.
"Social media has helped us solve a lot of crimes," Taylor said. "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."
He said the department has received a ton of calls about a viral YouTube video another couple posted purporting to have captured Petito's van. Taylor believes the footage is credible, but he wonders why these sources didn't go to the police first.
"It looks like their vehicle ... but we learn about it through them posting on YouTube, talking about it," he said. "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]."
Dean also pointed out that while most people were genuinely concerned about Petito's well-being, there is a pervading and dangerous standard for how much attention is given to white women victims compared to BIPOC victims.
"My big thing is, it’s really hard to balance criticizing the true crime community while they are actively trying to help — I never want to take away from the fact that it’s good that Gabby’s name and face are out there," she said.
"We can simultaneously have a conversation about how Indigenous, Black, or Brown people who go missing don’t get near the same media attention as we’re trying to help find this poor woman." (While police on Sunday said they discovered human remains believed to belong to Petito, forensic testing is still underway to confirm her identity.)
"Two things can be true at once. It would be great if every person who went missing got this kind of attention," she said.
According to Dean, some best practices for covering or talking about a high-profile case is to make sure the information being shared is carefully vetted, and that the focus of social media posts is on the victim and their family.
"[Social media] is a perfect tool to make sure her name and face, and any potential useful updates, are out there," she said. "But I think what people really need to put at the center of everything is making sure that the information they’re putting out there is first accurate. Double checking that everything they share is true, minimizing the amount of speculation and theories."
She noted that there are several "wild accusations" that continue to circulate online about who "did it."
"All of these wild accusations that don’t necessarily have any basis," she said. "It’s OK to have your own personal theory on what you think might have happened, but to create your own insane theory as a ticket to go viral, it creates an absolute nightmare situation for a future courtroom."