If you’ve been online at all in the past week you’ll probably know — in minute detail — every step of the ongoing investigation into the disappearance and presumed death of Gabby Petito.
Petito is a 22-year old travel influencer from New York who was travelling across the US in a Ford Transit van with her fiancé Brian Laundrie until she disappeared on August 25. Laundrie returned to his parent’s house in Florida where the couple had been living on September 1 without Petito and has thus far been refusing to cooperate with authorities who are attempting to locate her.
Petito’s family reported her missing on September 11. On September 17, Laundrie too had disappeared. The FBI has since said that they have found human remains consistent with the description of Petito on September 19 in Bridger-Teton National Forest, part of Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming. The FBI have now confirmed that the body is that of Petito.
It’s fair to say that this tragic case has set the internet on fire. Maybe it’s because we’ve all got severe lockdown-brain and are hungry for juicy gossip, no matter how macabre. Maybe it’s because the case has all the components of a truly gripping true-crime podcast that we can follow along in real-time. Maybe it’s because the dramatic tale of two young, attractive white people wrapped up in a murderous case of sex and violence is a tale as old as time that continues to resonate with us.
Whatever the reason, the internet is absolutely loving it, with online communities having become little portals of DIY detective work, sharing every tidbit of information that is available to glean online and, because we live in the 21st century, there is a lot of it out there.
An Instagram account that was set up five days ago ‘dedicated’ to Petito has 55 thousand followers. A Reddit forum set up to gather information on the case and discuss theories was locked down on Sunday as news broke of a body being found. It had amassed 90 thousand members in seven days, with 6,400 comments a day.
On TikTok, amateur sleuths are pouring over every Instagram post the girl has ever made, discussing the minutia of songs that were added to her Spotify playlists at the time of her disappearance.
If you’re so inclined, you can listen to the audio of a call made to police alleging intimate partner violence between the pair, or if that doesn’t do it for you, how about this video of police body-cam footage featuring a crying Petito?
Petito was a relative unknown until she vanished. Now, Google has 26.3 million search results for her name. For comparison, Scott Morrison, leader of the 12th largest economy in the world and Prime Minister to some 25 million people has just 148 million Google results.
If what we are dealing with here is what it looks like — the possible murder of a young girl by her partner in the US — then the internet really needs to calm down. There is a grieving family at the heart of this, a community that will be forever changed by the actions of someone who professed to love her. The last thing they need is the eyes of what appears to be the entire world upon them and the ghoulish breath of millions of people down their necks.
We’re not suggesting that some of the intentions are not good here, that people genuinely hoped that this girl could be found alive and well and be brought home safely, but the level of coverage and immersion that some have given to the case goes well beyond concern and veers directly into voyeuristic rubber-necking and a vulture-like feeding frenzy on grief and tragedy.
The internet, if it can be taken as a whole, has an incredible capacity for good as well as evil as, after all, the internet is just people. If some of this attention can be translated into support for the family, financial or otherwise, that would be a worthwhile outcome. However, similar pile ons have been whipped up online before, often with stupid and unnecessary consequences.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings in 2013, Reddit went into overdrive searching for the culprits responsible for the deaths of three runners and the injury of hundreds more. Two men were identified and their friends, families, and associates were promptly hounded by a barrage of intrusive and threatening messages in the white-hot glare of the concentrated attention of the internet. They were obviously the wrong people and Reddit had to issue a formal apology for the incident.
The world is not a Netflix drama, not every missing person case has to be the next Serial. Awful things happen, and when they do, those involved should be afforded the privacy and dignity to process these events while the authorities are given space to properly investigate the case.
There will be time to reflect on this case, time to pull apart the themes of misogyny and domestic violence, social media, and the power of the internet, but now is not that time. It’s too fresh, it’s too raw, and it’s too much.
Thousands of people go missing across the world on a daily basis, around 2% of them are never found. Unfortunately (or fortunately), not all of them have large social media followings and the makings of the next blockbuster hit. This incident is a tragedy and we should all understand and treat it as such. Just because it’s happening through a computer screen doesn’t mean that the hype won’t have real-world consequences.
(By the way, I’m aware of the irony of writing about the Gabby Petito case in order to decry it.)