The disappearance of 22-year-old Gabrielle Petito has captivated the public, with national news organizations devoting substantial coverage to the twists and turns of the investigation and social media users scouring Petito’s Instagram and YouTube accounts for hidden clues.
On July 2, Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie left New York in a white van on a cross-country camping trip. The journey was scheduled to last four months and include stops at several national parks. But only two months later, on Sept. 1, Laundrie returned to his parents’ home in Florida without Petito.
Laundrie, considered a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance, refused to cooperate with the authorities as they began to search for his partner. Then he vanished as the investigation attracted attention on social media. On Sept. 19, investigators announced that they may have discovered Petito’s remains in Wyoming. Two days later, a coroner confirmed that the body was Petito’s and that the cause of death was homicide.
The Petito case has sparked the sort of widespread public awareness that can help the authorities in a missing persons investigation — and allow the public to feel as if they’re taking part in the search. Laundrie and Petito left a long online trail during their road trip. Police publicly released bodycam footage of a Moab, Utah, traffic stop during which Petito was seen sobbing uncontrollably following an argument with Laundrie.
The publicity has also raised questions about the public’s outsized interest in Petito’s case. According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, over 20,000 people are currently missing in the U.S., and some also vanished during visits to national parks. Criminologists and academics said the Petito case reveals a lot about what leads certain missing persons cases to dominate public awareness while others remain relatively obscure.
“It has as much to do with our society and our cultural values and expectations as it does the specifics of the case,” said criminologist Scott Bonn.
Case captivates social media
The wide availability of photo and video evidence in the Petito case has allowed social media users to take on the role of amateur investigators, parsing captions and body language for insight into Petito’s state of mind. As of Sept. 20, the hashtag #GabbyPetito had over 500 million views on TikTok.
“Once a story goes viral, people like to feel as if they’re part of it,” said Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University-Sacramento, who specializes in media representation of criminal cases. “People will go to Reddit or TikTok and they’ll chat with their friends and other users about the case. Researchers speculate that a part of the draw of true crime is this communal aspect.”
Social media users have offered everything from conspiracy theory to leads that may have actually swung the course of the investigation. According to The New York Times, a YouTube-famous couple named Kyle and Jenn Bethune may have helped locate Petito’s body after reviewing video footage they had shot in Wyoming.
Michael Alcazar, a retired New York Police Department detective and criminal justice professor at John Jay College, said that social media interest can be crucial to recovering a missing person, comparing it to a nationwide AMBER Alert.
“A lot of agencies don’t have a lot of investigators,” he said. “Having social media disseminating information, we can canvass more.”
However, media attention can also come with downsides, flooding police departments with useless tips and pressuring them in ways that could distract them from the investigation.
Another factor driving all the publicity could be the contrast between the seemingly idyllic portrait of Petito’s relationship on social media and the tragic events of the case. Petito and Laundrie’s trip fits into the social media movement known as #VanLife, a trend where young couples travel the country posting photos of each other in remote and scenic locations. #VanLife gained popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, as people confined to their homes became more attracted to the fantasy of living a simple life in sweeping outdoor locations.
“It’s possible that so many took to Gabby’s case because they wanted to know how something like this could happen to a couple that on social media and on paper seem very happy,” Slakoff said.
On a related note, some psychological research has indicated that women “engage with true crime to learn warning signs and safety tips” about how to prevent an assault and avoid a potentially dangerous partner, Slakoff said. More than half of female murder victims from 2003 to 2014 were killed by intimate partners, often following a long period of escalating abuse.
“I think true crime in general is a way for (victims of intimate partner violence) to share with and educate their friends and family about what they’ve gone through,” Slakoff said.
Laundrie is not officially considered a suspect in Petito’s case, but his refusal to cooperate with investigators and his own disappearance have led social media users to suspect him of involvement. A 911 caller reported seeing Laundrie slap Petito and chase her on a sidewalk shortly before the couple was pulled over in Utah. Investigators from the FBI recently searched Laundrie’s home for evidence.
The role of race in determining viral stories
Criminologists said another reason for the surge of publicity around Petito’s disappearance is her race and age.
“The vast majority of people who go missing and are murdered are not young white females but people of color,” said Bonn. “How often do you hear about a person of color gone missing?”
As the frenzy around the case has mounted, news outlets have reported that Petito vanished in Wyoming, where over 700 indigenous people, primarily girls, have disappeared over the last decade. None has generated the same social media attention or news coverage.
University of Texas-Austin professor Michael Sierra-Arévalo said that the racial disparities in news coverage around missing persons relate to the way that media outlets report on Black and brown victims in other contexts. A 2020 study, for example, analyzed media stories about homicides in Chicago. The study found that Black victims were both less likely to receive media coverage than white victims and less likely to be discussed as complex and sympathetic people.
Research shows that the same racial disparities manifest in social media engagement. Michelle Jeanis, an assistant professor in criminal justice at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, found in her study published this year that Facebook posts about missing white people received more engagement and more clicks than posts about missing people of color.
None of this is meant to take away from the tragedy of Petito’s disappearance, but to acknowledge the way in which certain cases are mourned while others are quickly forgotten.
“Everytime we have a high-profile, typically young, white woman who goes missing, we have a very brief conversation about why we should care about other people and then we move on,” Jeannis said. “I’m hopeful that this case sparks the conversations that need to be had in our community.”
If you or anyone you know is experiencing a form of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799-7233.