TikTok and YouTube help investigators in Gabby Petito case
As the world watched and eagerly awaited any development in the case of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who went missing on a van trip across the country with her 23-year-old fiance Brian Laundrie, detectives from TikTok already had rolled up their shirt sleeves and prepared their string theory metaphorical tables: the search was on.
Gruesome updates to Petito’s case, which most recently included confirmation of investigators that a body found near a wooded campsite did indeed fit the young woman’s description – has come quickly and furiously in the week since national media picked up the story. First, Petito was reported missing by his family on September 11, 10 days after Laundrie returned to the Florida home the couple shared with his parents. He arrived in the van they were traveling in, without his fiancé. Then, body camera images emerged from the couple shortly after police were called to investigate an alleged incident of domestic violence. In the footage, a hysterical Gabby can be heard telling officers who responded that she and Laundrie had been fighting all morning, causing the situation to escalate violently. The grim details unfolded against the backdrop of a considerable treasure trove of existing media documenting Petito’s life – she and Laundrie were budding YouTube vloggers, after all – creating a rich and devastating narrative that mesmerized a nation.
As international fervor around the case grew, some creators of TikTok have suspended their regular programming and settled in, producing update reports like seasoned journalists. On September 15, Haley Toumaian, posting under the username @RobandHaley, posted a video showing her followers how to use her new egg cooker. The next day, she posted a video giving a “quick look at the Gabby Petito affair,” a post that quickly racked up over 31,000 likes. Just two days later, Toumaian posted videos in which she analyzed Petito’s hair color in her latest Instagram posts and hosted live monitoring events that featured the televised press conferences broadcast on CNN and Fox News.
During these live broadcasts of press conferences, Toumaian estimates that she had between 20,000 and 30,000 viewers; according to his estimates, separate live broadcasts detailing his own theories and the most recent updates on the case had between 4 and 5,000 viewers at any given time. In explaining his decision to rotate his account to focus on investigation updates, Toumaian cites his love of the true criminal genre as a direct influence.
“I’m a real crime podcaster, and when I heard about Gabby’s case, I knew I had to use my research to examine it,” Toumaian told Gizmodo via Instagram direct messages. “When I heard about her it touched me because I’m the same age as her, also YouTuber, I’m engaged… we have a lot of similarities. The first video I posted, I was just trying to get the very first information out to my 170,000 subscribers at the time, just in case anyone knew anything.
Under videos speculating that Gabby’s disappearance was also linked to a newlywed couple who were found murdered in Moab, Utah, the same weekend that Petito and Laundrie were arrested there by the police (the authorities have finally ruled out any link), comments like “The Internet will solve this case before the FBI”, he abounded.
Then, against all odds, social media really helped take stock of the case when YouTubers from Red, White & Bethune recognized images of Petito’s distinctive white van in footage they had taken. in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, where investigators reported the remains of Petito. Jenn Bethune, one of the account owners, Recount “Fox & Friends” that she only thought about seeing the tape again after someone tagged her in a social media post calling on people who visited the national park on August 27 to check their footage to help investigators.
Of course, and maybe not that shocking, bad things can happen. when the Internet decides to play Columbo. After 2013 Boston Marathon attacks who killed three people and injured hundreds more, for example, Reddit took action to “help” authorities catch the bad guys, but got it wrong when users falsely accused a man who had gone missing as one of the suspects. (The accused that the man’s body was later found in a river, and the administrators of the subreddit in question have given his family a formal apology). In 2018, amateur detectives in a small town, a Facebook group staged an elaborate thriller attempting to identify the killer of a 42-year-old mother who had lived in their neighborhood, publicly pressuring hysterical speculative theories about their innocent neighbors.
In these and other cases, well-meaning potential detectives with no training blur the line between sexy and fictional mysteries and the gruesome and often mundane details of actual murder cases. But for now, on TikTok, amateur investigators are applauding their victory.
“I think from all the creators sharing on TikTok, more people have learned about the matter. [than] if it had just been shared on the news, ”Toumaian said. “People who maybe saw something but didn’t think about it were alerted because of everything being shared on TikTok, and then they released that information.”