“Not to sound disrespectful, but I can’t wait for the Netflix series,” a commenter wrote on a TikTok video that analyzed Gabby Petito’s Instagram for clues about her disappearance. Petito’s story has captivated America: Attractive 22-year-old travel blogger goes missing, her fiancé refuses to talk, he goes missing too, investigators find what they believe is her body in a national park.
It’s a nightmare. And while most of us have been following along from a respectable distance, a subset of women on TikTok have decided to treat it like an interactive whodunit. “This is like watching true crime on Netflix, but in real time,” a commenter wrote on a video discussing Instagram posts by Brian Laundrie, Petito’s fiancé.
On TikTok, #GabbyPetito has more than 500 million views. Countless people have flocked to Petito’s and her fiancé Brian Laundrie’s Instagrams to search for clues and leave long, ardent comments. Accounts that have turned themselves into Petito content mills have exponentially grown in followers. These at-home investigations bring together the aesthetics of Nancy Drew, memes, and pastel educational infographics. “Not to go all Elle Woods but Gabby Petito doesn’t have her roots done on ig pics of the parks but her has fresh blonde in the most recent pic aka it’s an old picture,” a woman tweeted, garnering tens of thousands of reactions.
It’s tempting to pronounce this insensitive, or say that it undermines the serious investigation of Petito’s and Laundrie’s disappearances. But social media’s penetration into our lives can rarely be so neatly simplified. Some of these content creators are monetizing a tragedy, but the reality is that some of them were instrumental in finding the body and narrowing the search for Laundrie.
The New York Times reports that a YouTuber couple, Kyle and Jenn Bethune, realized they had been traveling and making content in Bridger-Teton National Forest around the same time as Petito and Laundrie. Jenn found shots of Petito’s van in their YouTube footage and reported it to the FBI. The couple also uploaded the video about finding the van to YouTube. And through that video’s popularity, Bethune connected with Petito’s mother—the Bethunes had also lost a child, and the two cried together, Kyle Bethune told the Times. On Sunday investigators found what they believe is Petito’s body near the place where the Bethune’s video had located the van.
Another crack in the case: A woman named Miranda Baker saw Laundrie’s image on TikTok and realized that she and her boyfriend had picked him up hitchhiking after Petito’s disappearance. She contacted the authorities, and shared her own story on TikTok. The line between entertainment and evidence has never been less clear. Giving the morass of social media content about Petito a quick scan, most of it seems to come from a place of compassion, not just morbid curiosity. “Anyone else cry even tho they didn’t know her? I’m so sad,” one popular comment reads, on a TikTok announcing the news that Petito’s body had been found. Many of the responses are just prayers.
But what is it about Gabby Petito that’s captured the public imagination in a way that hasn’t been matched by interest in, say, Dulce Maria Alavez, a five-year-old who went missing this time two years ago while playing in a park in New Jersey? Or Mary Johnson, a 31-year-old woman who was reported missing last December on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington State? It’s what journalist Gwen Ifill called “missing white woman syndrome.” That’s the phrase she coined to describe the crazed public attention on cases like those of Natalee Holloway or Elizabeth Smart, and utter indifference to nonwhite girls and women who disappear.
It’s not that crazy that we’re invested in a tragic, highly visible news story. But the frenzied focus on Petito—when hundreds of thousands of missing person reports are filed in the United States every year, and around 17,000 remain unresolved—is startling. It reveals a horrifying paradigm when it comes to the way the public processes violence against women. When white women die under mysterious circumstances—think JonBenét Ramsey, Kitty Genovese, Sharon Tate—they are turned, gruesomely, into entertainment. But when women of color, especially Black, trans, and indigenous women die or are killed, their stories are largely ignored.