- TikTok users have been posting about Gabby Petito’s disappearance with updates and theories.
- The FBI has said that remains found in Wyoming were identified as Petito’s.
- Some critics say that the TikTok fervor around Petito’s case may not be helpful.
The disappearance of Gabrielle Petito, a 22-year-old who went missing while documenting her #vanlife journey alongside her fiancé Brian Laundrie, has captivated the nation for a week straight.
TikTok users’ obsession with the case, which has yielded everything from regular case updates to analyses of her Spotify playlists, is part of what’s turned Petito’s disappearance into a “national sensation,” as The New York Times reported.
Petito was reported missing on September 11 by her mother, who had last made contact with her daughter in late August. Laundrie refused to cooperate with the investigation prior to going missing from his family’s Florida home on September 14, police told CNN.
On Tuesday, the FBI announced that remains found in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming were Petito’s. The coroner’s “initial determination for the manner of death is homicide,” the department said in a statement.
Since Petito’s disappearance became public, discussions around the case have abounded on social media and on TikTok in particular. In the process, the #gabbypetito hashtag has amassed over 820 million views. Speculation about the circumstances of Petito’s disappearance and her death, and who may have been involved, has spread on the platform as well.
TikTokers who spoke to Insider regarding their posts on Petito’s case said that for them, the goal was to raise awareness about Petito’s disappearance on behalf of her family.
But there’s been criticism of some of the TikTok activity around the case, including concerns about disseminating misinformation.
Interest in Petito’s case grew on TikTok in the week leading up to authorities finding her body
Many of the viral videos in the #gabbypetito hashtag on TikTok were posted from Friday, September 17 onward, but the case began to go viral earlier in the week, around September 14.
Paris Campbell (@stopitparis), a New York City-based comedian and writer, told Insider that she was one of the creators to post about Petito’s disappearance early on, noting that there were only a few videos in the #gabbypetito hashtag when she uploaded a September 14 video sharing Petito’s missing-person poster.
“If this happened to me, if I was looking for my daughter, I would be devastated,” Campbell told Insider, citing her status as a new mother as part of her motivation to post.
Since then, Campbell has posted over 40 videos about Petito’s case, which she told Insider she created by aggregating information that had been previously reported by news media.
“My intention behind all of it has just been to spread information and try to contribute to helping find Gabby,” Campbell told Insider.
Other videos have also reportedly contributed new information to the investigation. The most-liked video in the #gabbypetito hashtag is from Miranda Baker, who claimed that she picked up Brian Laundrie, Petito’s fiancé, up in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, on August 29. North Port police in Florida told Fox News that they spoke to Baker regarding the video she posted.
Some have criticized the TikTokers covering Petito’s case, saying they ‘capitalized’ on her death
The obsession with Petito’s disappearance led to a debate about how much creators, including some who gravitate towards true crime content or have posted frequently about Petito’s case, had helped advance the investigation, as reported by BuzzFeed News. But it has also led to discussions over whether the content is insensitive.
People have also suggested the fervor around Petito reflects a bias towards missing white women as opposed to missing people from marginalized communities, such as Indigenous people, whose cases don’t receive the same attention.
Jordan Wildon, a digital investigator who tracks online misinformation and disinformation, tweeted that “posting every little detail” of a case without verification can be counterproductive, and in some cases, harmful.
Abbie Richards, a researcher and TikToker who studies misinformation and disinformation on TikTok, told The Washington Post that she was critical of those “capitalizing” on content regarding minute details of Petito’s life.
Some have also raised concerns referencing previous incidents in which online sleuthing has led to harm, like when a missing student falsely accused of being a suspect in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was later found dead.
Content creators defend their choice to cover Petito’s case despite the criticism
One creator who posted about Petito’s case, Liz Cooper (@literallylizzi), did so while applying makeup, a common YouTube trend. That particular fusion has drawn criticism online, with people calling it disrespectful or insensitive.
Cooper has said on TikTok and in an interview with Insider that makeup is a strategy to game TikTok’s algorithm and get more views.
“If you start a video showing what you are doing — i.e. a makeup look — individuals will stick around until the end to see the final product,” Cooper told Insider, adding that she tries to reach out to the family or someone close to the missing person or victim. “People commenting on a video asking about products also builds video interaction. This spreads the video further in the TikTok algorithm and allows more people to see this message.”
Ryan Luna (@doctor.ryan), who has 1 million followers on TikTok and recently graduated from medical school, has been posting updates on Petito’s case since Friday and conducted an interview with Petito’s brother and godmother live on TikTok. Some of his videos include speculation about the case. After making an error in one TikTok about Petito-Laundrie details, he corrected it in a separate video before ultimately deleting both.
“I understand the impact that receiving millions of views has and do not want to report inaccurate information,” Luna told Insider.
He also said he and other TikTokers who have been posting about Petito weren’t trying to take credit for solving the case, and added that he wants to raise awareness and help the family.
“All I know is that we need to carry this energy and be enthusiastic for telling stories for missing people from all walks of life, like minorities who do not always receive the same amount of attention as people like Gabby,” he told Insider.
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