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Gabby Petito in an image from her Instagram account @gabspetito. The disappearance and death of Petito, who was travelling in a van across America with fiancé Brian Laundrie, has generated a whirlwind online. Photo: Instagram/@gabspetito

The Gabby Petito case armchair detectives on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram and what motivates them

  • Internet users, fascinated by Petito’s disappearance and death, have been poring over online video and photos for clues as the hunt for her fiancé goes on
  • In China, internet sleuths form ‘human flesh search engines’. An expert says such cases intrigue people who ‘have a fantasy about being able to solve crimes’

The disappearance and death of American woman Gabby Petito and the police hunt for her boyfriend have generated a whirlwind online, with vast numbers of armchair internet detectives sharing tips, possible sightings and theories on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.

Whether the frenzy of attention and internet sleuthing has helped the investigation remains unclear, but it has illuminated the intersection between social media and the global public’s fascination with true-crime stories.

This fascination for combing through footage and images posted on the internet to try and pin down the details of crimes – from corruption to murder – has flourished around the world, particularly now when the Covid-19 pandemic has kept so many people at home.

Rather than being fed a narrative, the so-called internet sleuths feel they are part of the story.

Petito was travelling in a van with fiancé Brian Laundrie. Photo: Instagram/@gabspetito
Months before her disappearance drew more than a half-billion views on TikTok, Petito, 22, and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, 23, set out on a cross-country road trip over the summer in a van she decorated in a boho-chic style.

They documented their adventure on video and invited social media users to follow along on the journey, sharing scenes of a seemingly happy couple cartwheeling on a beach, hiking on mountain trails and camping in the Utah desert.

Autopsy shows body found in US national park is missing woman Gabby Petito

But they quarrelled along the way, and Laundrie returned home alone to Florida in the van in September.

On September 19, a body believed to be Petito’s was discovered at the edge of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The FBI then announced a coroner determined the body was Petito’s and her death was a homicide, but officials didn’t disclose details pending final autopsy results.

Investigators are seeking Laundrie as a person of interest in the case, focusing on a swampy Florida preserve where he is believed to have gone with a backpack last week.

A body discovered in Wyoming has been determined to be Petito. Photo: FBI Denver via AP

Social media users have been fascinated by the case and they have been poring over the wealth of online video and photos for clues, as well as posting their own theories and information.

In China, this amateur detective online search has been called the “human flesh search engine”, a phenomenon which has seen China’s internet users join searches for clues to crimes and celebrities’ secrets.

Mass internet sleuthing is the internet offshoot of the human fascination with crime and unsolved mysteries, especially those that develop over time, leaving troves of online data. Petito and Laundrie were on the move and documenting their journey, leaving a rich trail of internet information.

“A lot of it has to do with the cross-country journey they were documenting, going on social media on this grand adventure,” says Joseph Scott Morgan, a professor of forensics at Jacksonville State University in Florida and an authority on high-profile murder cases. “They are young, they are attractive people.”

A police bodycam video shows Laundrie speaking with police as they responded to an altercation. Photo: AFP

A police bodycam video fuelled the online fascination: it shows the couple after they were pulled over by police in August in Moab, Utah, where the van was seen speeding and hitting a kerb.

They had been fighting and Petito was in tears, with Laundrie saying tension had been building between them because they had been travelling together for months.

Theories and observations picked up steam on Reddit, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter.
Mysterious deaths can inspire viral fascination and a flood of theories. CCTV footage released by police of 23-year-old Canadian Elisa Lam acting strangely before her bloated and naked body was discovered in a water tank in the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles spawned an online frenzy. A four-part Netflix series, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, released in 2021 was inspired by Lam’s death.
The couple were pulled over while they were having an emotional fight. Photo: AP
In 2019, Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer focused on a group of Facebook amateur detectives from all over the world trying to find Canadian Luka Magnotta, who was finally arrested for killing and dismembering Chinese student Jun Lin in 2012.

Magnotta had sparked internet outrage for torturing and killing several cats and posting the footage online. The online amateur detectives analysed the footage frame by frame, finally identifying Magnotta.

With a similar attention to detail, internet users have delved into Petito’s Spotify music playlists, Laundrie’s reading habits and the couple’s digitally bookmarked trails. A TikTok user reported he or she had picked up Laundrie hitchhiking.

FBI searches home of Gabby Petito’s fiancé after body found

A couple who document their bus travels on YouTube said they went through some of their video footage from near Grand Teton and spotted what they said was the couple’s white van. They posted an image of it with a big red arrow pointing to it and the words, “We found Gabby Petito’s van”.

They claimed this sighting led investigators to the place where the body was found. The FBI has not specified what led to the discovery or whether any tips from internet sleuths have helped.

Michael Alcazar, a retired New York detective and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says Petito’s Instagram account gave investigators places to start and social media about the couple became a rich source of information.

“Instagram is kind of like the photo on the milk carton, except it reaches so many people quickly,” he says.

A makeshift memorial dedicated to Petito near City Hall in North Port, Florida. Photo: AFP

Hannah Matthews, a TikTok user from Salt Lake City, Utah, admits she became obsessed with the case, identifying with Petito. She has made 14 short videos detailing theories of what could have gone wrong and providing updates on the case. One suggests Petito did not write one of her Instagram posts. It has had nearly 2 million views.

“It just seemed like an odd case from the beginning and, after doing more research and [collaborating] with other people on social media, the case just kept growing and having twists and turns,” she says.

By September 21, the hashtag #gabbypetito had received more than 650 million views on TikTok.

Petito’s Instagram account has left a rich trail of internet information. Photo: Instagram/@gabspetito

Some commentators have detected what they see as a racial double standard in the Petito case, complaining media and online sleuths are heavily invested because she is young and white.

“There are a lot of women of colour, and especially immigrants, this happens to all the time, and we never hear about it,” says Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami.

The couple’s plans sounded like something out of a romantic movie gone terribly awry, he adds. “It has this whole air of intrigue,” he says. “People have a real fantasy about being able to solve crimes.”