true crime

How the Gabby Petito Case Activated the Online True Crime Community

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

Over the last two weeks, the true crime obsessed corner of the internet has come together with one common goal: finding Gabby Petito.

The online frenzy kicked off shortly after the Long Island woman's family first reported her missing on Sept. 11. TikTok users began posting videos on Petito’s disappearance, updating followers of every single development in the case and sharing their own theories on what could have happened to her. 

Haley Toumaian, a YouTuber and TikToker with a true crime podcast, has dedicated the majority of her videos over the last two weeks to the case. One of her first videos, posted on Sept. 15, which provides an update on the case, has 11.6 million views on TikTok. Most of the videos she has posted about Petito have over a million views. 

“I am very similar to Gabby. [We are] of similar age, I am also engaged, I am also a YouTuber… I have always been drawn to cases that are unsolved or missing person cases... so... this one really struck a chord with me,” explained Toumaian. 

Petito’s case clearly connected with millions of people on a personal level. Videos about her disappearance have gained more than 900 million views on TikTok. People who had never even met Petito held a personal stake in finding her and understanding what happened to her. 

Toumaian thinks that part of the reason why so many people became invested in the case is because so much of Petito’s life can be found online. “She had a pretty large digital footprint... so people were able to go to her pages and kind of learn more about her and feel like they knew her through her posts and her videos. A lot of people got really connected to her and that is what really led to more people being invested,” she said. 

The case connected even with those who had no prior interest in true crime. People like Tiany Vargas, whose TikTok account used to be dedicated primarily to posting anything she wanted, turned their attention and content to Petito.

"I have never seen a case before that had such a big digital footprint," Vargas said. "There was such an access to information that the public had. I feel like with Gabby she is definitely somebody that could have been my friend, [we are] relatively the same age, so I think that is something that really resonated with me." 

Very quickly, Petito’s case became "the" focus on the internet. This meant that as awareness of her disappearance grew, those who were around Grand Teton National Park, where Petito’s body was found last weekend, started to rethink the things they saw while there. In one instance, a couple who had visited the park in late August realized while going through their videos that they had passed by a van resembling that of Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie. Petito’s body was found near where the couple saw the van. 

True crime fanatics like Toumaian say the video of the van is exactly why the attention on the case is so valuable.

“That probably would not have happened if it had not gotten such wide media attention through social media. It might have been on some news channels and stuff but I don't think as many people would have seen it," she said.

Still, there are many who think that these internet detectives do more harm than good by profiting off the disappearance of someone they do not know and getting in the way of police. As these content creators continue to make videos on Petito they gain followers and views. 

"The police knows a lot more than we do and so does the FBI. I really don't think that they take too much of what we say into account," Vargas said in response to the idea of civilians getting in the way of the investigation. "I think it is just us wanting to put together the pieces."

“I definitely do think there are people who are trying to [profit off this]. Personally, that has never been my goal. A lot of those more conspiracy-based accounts I feel like are trying to grab the attention [of viewers] by [exploiting the disappearance],” Toumaian explained.

Toumaian is talking about the hundreds of videos and Facebook posts with wild conspiracies trying to explain the case. Facebook groups with hundreds of thousands of members have come together to share their wildest theories.

Toumaian says that she has stayed away from posting theories, focusing on facts confirmed by the police instead. “I don't think that [posting theories] is helpful. That is where we start to hurt the police investigation because we don't know what the truth is in those cases and if people are putting it out there, they might think that the police do believe whatever this person is saying.” 

Perhaps even more of a concern in this case is that this level of attention may not have been received if Petito was a person of color. In 2020, more than 500,000 people were reported missing with almost 40% of them being people of color, according to the Black and Missing Foundation. Many are now speaking of the missing white woman syndrome, a term used to describe the overwhelming coverage of cases of missing white women compared to indigenous and women of color. 

“It is definitely true. I think in general, missing person cases are underreported in the media. But there definitely is a disproportionate amount of white victims that we see compared to people of color. That is something that we can all work on and that is why I have said that I will do my best to share, going forward, cases where the victim is a person of color or indigenous women,” Toumaian shared. 

Vargas, like Toumaian, received comments asking her to make videos on the disappearance of others and began to post more videos on missing people.

"I started to get people commenting on other missing people of color then I started to post more of their stories," she said. "The thing with that is that it was a dead end, I would post and look for more information regarding more people that were missing but the information just stopped so I couldn't post more TikToks."

Many on social media are calling to increase the attention on cases of missing people of color. Only time will tell if these cases will receive the same attention as those surrounding white women.

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