Gabby Petito's disappearance shouldn't be an internet true crime thriller

While the internet loves a good true crime story, it is not a fan of the voyeuristic online search for Gabby Petito.
Petito, a 22 year-old New Yorker, who was obsessed with "art, yoga and vegetables" is the focus of a national missing person investigation. Her story unfolds as a thriller right now thanks to her social media posts that were consistent up until her disappearance. Petito deserves better than being made into a spectacle.

The tag #gabbypetito had 77 million views on TikTok as of Friday. #findgabbypetito had 16.6 million. The tag #gabbypetitoupdate now has 7.3 million. The subreddit #GabbyPetito, which was started on September 13, already has 33.200 members. She's the subject of multiple threads in r/True Crime, which has 611,000 members, and in r/TrueCrimeDiscussion, which has 284,000 members. People are also creating Instagram accounts that express their appreciation for her case, such as @gabby.petito which gained 10,100 followers within 24 hours.

While most people involved in the discussion online say they are concerned for Petito, some posts seem distastefully opportunistic.

Jul. She and her fianc, Brian Laundrie, 23, embarked on a cross-country adventure in a Ford Transit van. They documented their trip on Instagram, TikTok and Nomadic Statik. The couple's content was similar to that of "vanlifers," a group of travel bloggers who live in converted camper vans and reject the glamour of mainstream influencers. Van life is not about extravagant outfits or elaborate brunches. It's a minimalist lifestyle that allows you to explore the outdoors and unplug from your desk. Petito and Laundrie looked happy on social media. They didn't seem to be bothered about bad weather or other inconveniences.

Petito wrote, "Rain sounds bad when camping. But after a strenuous hike through the sun with no shade for miles it's nice that you lay and listen to the cold rain hit your shelter and fight @bizarre_design_ to get the blanket." 22 Instagram photo taken in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Petito also took another photo at Canyonlands National Park in Utah. He was musing about the joys and challenges of hiking barefoot. This is a Laundrie habit.

"Astonishingly, the rocks were not too cold!" She wrote. It was also tranquil and it felt good, as it was 100 degrees without any shade. It's always a pleasure to surpass people on hikes and hear them say, "Woah! He's barefoot!" @bizarre_design inspires me daily to live a more natural life!

Petito was last seen leaving a Salt Lake City hotel on Aug. 24, Utah. On Aug. 25, Petito FaceTimed her family from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and posted her last Instagram picture in front of a wall covered in monarch butterflies. Her mother received a text on Aug. 30 from her saying "No service Yellowstone," although she isn’t certain if it was her daughter. Laundrie and his van arrived at his Florida home on Sept. 1. Petito did not. On Sept. 11, her family reported her missing.

Laundrie won't talk to investigators and hasn't yet made a public statement about his fiance's disappearance. His unwillingness to cooperate with law enforcement and his refusal of communicating with Petito's families are fueling online discussions about true crime enthusiasts.

Laundrie's lawyers said Tuesday that "This is understandably a very difficult time for both of the Petito families and the Laundrie families." "On behalf the Laundrie Family, it is our hope that Miss Petito's search is successful and that Miss Petito is reunited with her family."

The Instagram account @gabby.petito was created by a student aged 20, who wishes to remain anonymous. Although it is easy to confuse with Petito's account, the creators said they did not intend to mislead. The visually appealing and whimsical style of the posts were not meant to be disrespectful or insensitive. They are intended to be eye-catching and easy to share in an effort raise awareness about Petito's disappearance. The contrast between the pastel colors used and the detailed text about the case is striking. A witness statement was made by Petito in a domestic dispute between Laundrie, according to one post. It is superimposed on a baby-blue background. The post states that Petito was "crying uncontrollably" in the passenger seat.

In an Instagram DM, the creator of @gabby.petito stated that "In just over 48 hours our page has attained nearly two million impressions." The style of the posts is not the most important thing. It is important that people learn, understand, and spread awareness about Gabby.

Although online efforts to share information on this case are made with good intentions and the sheer volume of Petito-related content is a sign of opportunism.

There are many questions about Petito's disappearance, her relationship to Laundrie, as well as Laundrie's refusal of speaking publicly. This case is perfect for a compelling documentary. Although Petito's disappearance is a cause for concern, it can also be inappropriate. Twitter user @afroelven wrote, "I know producers and streaming service are salivating at + distributing this documentary first."

Although their lives look idyllic online, the bodycam footage that Utah police released shows a physical altercation between them just weeks before Gabby disappeared. According to police reports, Petito hit Laundrie during an argument. However, neither side wanted to press charges when they were interrogated. The officers described Petito's altercation in a mental and emotional "break" and said that Petito has "serious anxiety."

Some readers might find the bodycam footage disturbing. It was also the subject of online speculation regarding the nature of their relationship. Petito claimed that Laundrie had locked her out the van and hit her to get her keys and phone back. This was discussed on the feminist subreddit, r/TwoXChromosomes. Discussion participants on TikTok, Instagram and other platforms speculated about Laundrie and Petito's mental state and shared unconfirmed reports that they saw a young woman "mentally unstable" at a truck stop.

Todd Shipley is the president of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association and a retired senior detective sergeant from the Reno Police Department. He also co-authored Investigating Internet Crimes. An Introduction to Solving Crimes In Cyberspace. Mashable told him that true crime enthusiasts can overwhelm small law enforcement agencies with irrelevant information. While tips on social media might be useful for some cases, officers may not have the resources to investigate every case. Having hundreds of tips can also cause confusion.

"Sometimes people can point [law enforcement] at where the evidence is...The problem with that is when they get 1000 people doing that."

Shipley stated that sometimes people can point them towards the evidence, even though law enforcement might not immediately find it. He also noted how Petito's last Instagram posting helped to establish a timeline leading to her disappearance. "The problem with that is that when they have 1,000 people doing this, then a lot more stuff gets lost in their pools... It's the noise that makes law enforcement use resources inefficiently."

True-crime-obsessed people are not investigators, but re-cappers. Because these creators are excellent storytellers, their podcasts, YouTube videos and TikToks have a huge following. Although their work is hard, they often lack the skills or resources to investigate missing persons cases. True crime content is spreading rapidly, blurring the lines between investigative reporters and law enforcement detectives. Some creators created dedicated audiences by sharing theories about true crimes cold cases YouTube is full of videos that offer explanations for mysteries not solved.

These cases were years old when they were made. Families involved had the time to grieve and process their grief, and detectives might have completed their investigations. Petito's case remains unsolved.

Art Bowker, an investigative at the independent Cleveland Department of Public Safety police accountability agency, co-wrote this book with Shipley. Bowker, a cybersecurity expert who was also the former president of HTCIA, is fed up with true-crime creators who make wild speculations and don't have any evidence.

"I don’t believe they should be discussing...when they don’t have access to evidence."

Bowker stated that he doesn't believe they should discuss it, and that they shouldn't be. Bowker also said Mashable that creators don’t inspect evidence or interview witnesses like real detectives. "Professional media should have standards for what they will and won't do, but these YouTubers don’t. It's shame that they haven't developed these ethics.

Some true crime enthusiasts have tried to distance themselves away from more speculative creators. Sondra Holbrook has posted updates on Petito's case from Thursday to her TikTok account crimewithsondra. She has 127,400 followers. Holbrook said that she only shares information that authorities have discussed publicly.

"Some people forget that this is someone's reality, and making wild claims only serves to hurt the investigation. Holbrook stated in an Instagram message that it's more than entertainment. "As difficult as it may be, I believe we should keep speculations to ourselves. If you feel you really know something, you can report it to the authorities before you post it on social media."

She said that while Petito's family might appreciate her support, speculations really are just speculations and unreliable gossip "cloud the real info."

It doesn't matter if creators are more responsible than Holbrook or post wild speculations like many creators, but the willingness to jump on Petito's case is opportunistic.

Although the case is fascinating, especially because van life is presented as an escapist dream for young people, Petito and her family deserve better than to have their story consumed like a grisly thriller. Petito is a person, and not a subject for a podcast or docu-series. It's understandable to be fascinated by mysteries like this, but when it involves an ongoing case, it can hinder investigations and deprive families of compassion. Gabby Petito and her unfiltered offline life are more than a hook for true crime. Even the most concerned viewers need to be aware of this before they post about Gabby Petito.