If you’ve been on the internet at all over the past few weeks, you must have heard the name Gabby Petito. Petito was a 22-year-old woman who was reported missing, and, on Sept. 21, found dead in Teton County, Wyoming.
Petito was in Teton County at the time of her murder, as she was completing a road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, in a white van they had refurbished. The couple left in June, traveling the country through July and August. On Aug. 12, police were called on the couple due to a “physical fight” between them. The argument seemingly resolved, Gabby texted her mother on Aug. 27. This is the last correspondence Gabby’s family believes to be from her.
On Sept. 1, Brian returned home without Gabby. He did not contact or engage with the Petito family’s questions involving their daughter. On Sept. 11, they reported Gabby missing. Less than a week later, the Laundrie family admitted they had not seen or heard from Brian since Sept.14. On Sept. 21, remains found in Teton County were confirmed to be Petito’s. Brian is still missing.
Before Gabby’s tragic and untimely death, she was trying to grow a social media following, her feed curated to fit an “influencer” lifestyle. Before her disappearance reached major media outlets, Gabby had about a thousand followers. Now, she has one million. This major jump in numbers can be attributed to how popular her case has become on social media platforms, primarily TikTok.
In countless videos, many TikTok users attempt to solve the case to the best of their abilities. The true crime genre boomed on TikTok, as users were impatient to see a suspenseful case unfold right before their eyes. Videos treated Petito as a puzzle waiting to be solved, rather than a human being who had been murdered, leaving behind family and friends. There was little respect paid to her family, as an incredible number of videos were made acting as though Gabby was a new episode in their favorite crime podcast. The Petito family has been subject to false hope, as TikToks involving “sightings” of Gabby around the country circulated around the internet. Under a video posted of a woman at a Californian truck stop who matched Gabby’s description, one user went so far as to comment, “her dad says it’s not [her] but I don’t see how he can say that. They look identical.” Another replied, “you cannot convince me that that is not her.” It was, in fact, not her.
Many users took it upon themselves to “solve” Gabby’s murder case. Armchair investigators poured over everything from police camera videos to Gabby’s personal Spotify playlists, trying to piece together her murder. User red.white.and.bethune found the white van they traveled in and posted a video of it. Upon further inspection, it looked as though someone was digging in the background. Many were quick to say it’s Laundrie digging (unconfirmed). The TikTok account, robandhaley, has made around 70 videos, updating followers on Gabby with personal theories sprinkled in. An account called nerdyaddict visited the Laundrie home and stood outside, asking Brian’s mother why she wasn't helping the police and if she is covering for her son.
TikTok has sensationalized this case. As a platform obsessed with true crime, Gabby’s investigation skyrocketed to the top of the algorithm. Regardless of if this amount of support has helped or hindered the investigation, there is no question regarding how invested the internet is.
This amount of engagement has come under questioning. The uproar around Gabby’s murder created comparisons with cases of missing women of color, highlighting how little attention they are given by major news and social media platforms. TikTok user navajoniffler posted a video with the caption, “Gabby Petito goes missing and becomes America’s daughter. Where’s our stolen kidnapped indigenous sisters, mothers and daughters?” While some agreed with her, some called her words tasteless, saying her message didn’t sit well with them. Comments began to accuse her video of making missing peoples cases a competition, claiming it wasn’t the time to juxtapose different investigations. I understand no case should be in competition with another. Gabby’s case is horrific. I just don’t understand how people can’t acknowledge the disproportionate media coverage in this case. I’m not diminishing the immense grief Gabby’s family and friends are experiencing. I don’t believe Gabby’s case should be any less covered, but it must be recognized that Gabby was a white woman with a growing social media following. The media was quick to portray her as America’s daughter. In my home city of Chicago, there are 51 black women missing. I wonder when the news will cover their circumstances this extensively.
While Gabby is the “daughter of America” at this moment in time, American media is quick to dispose of stories like this one, expedited by fast paced trends. When Sarah Everard was raped and killed in the UK, her tragic death sparked a major discussion on violence against women and women’s safety. This isn’t the point of conversation in Gabby's case. Instead, true crime podcast enthusiasts anxiously await Gabby’s episode to air. Gabby was an avid listener of these podcasts; now similar listeners will click on her episode on Spotify. When that hour ends, there will be more stories to listen to of young women being murdered. There is outrage and deep sorrow in those who knew Gabby and those who tried to investigate her death, but there is no recognition of the big picture, nothing to give this tragic event any staying power in the American media system.