While the world watched and waited anxiously for any development in the case of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who had vanished during a cross-country van trip with her 23-year-old fiancé, Brian Laundrie, TikTok sleuths had already rolled up their shirtsleeves and prepped their metaphorical string theory boards: the search was on.
Gruesome updates from Petito’s case — which most recently included confirmation from investigators that a body recovered near a wooded campsite had indeed matched the young woman’s description — came fast and furious in the week since national media picked up the story. First, Petito was reported missing by her family on Sept. 11 — 10 days after Laundrie had returned to the Florida home the couple had shared with his parents.
He arrived in the van they had been travelling in, without his fiancé. Then, bodycam footage emerged of the couple shortly after police were called to investigate a suspected domestic violence incident.
In the footage, a hysterical Gabby can be heard telling the responding officers that she and Laundrie had been fighting all morning, causing the situation to escalate violently. The lurid details rolled in against the backdrop of a considerable trove of existing media documenting Petito’s life — she and Laundrie were aspiring YouTube vloggers, after all — creating a rich, devastating narrative that has a nation transfixed.
As international fervor around the case grew, some TikTok creators paused their regularly scheduled programming and set up shop, churning out update reports like seasoned journalists. On Sept. 15, Haley Toumaian, who posts under the username @RobandHaley, published a video in which she demonstrated to her followers how to use her new egg cooker.
The next day, she posted a video giving a “quick overview of the Gabby Petito case” — a post that quickly racked up more than 31,000 likes. Just two days later, Toumaian was posting videos in which she analysed the colour of Petito’s hair in her final Instagram posts and hosted livestreamed watch events that featured the televised press conferences airing on CNN and Fox News.
During such press conference livestreams, Toumaian estimates she had anywhere from 20-30,000 viewers; separate livestreams detailing her own theories and the most recent updates on the case had anywhere from 4-5,000 viewers at a given time, according to her estimates. In explaining her decision to pivot her account to focus on investigation updates, Toumaian cites her love of the true crime genre as a direct influence.
“I am a true crime podcaster, and when I heard about Gabby’s case I knew I needed to use my research to look into it,” Toumaian told Gizmodo via Instagram direct messages. “When I heard about her, it struck a chord with me because I am similar in age to her, also a YouTuber, am engaged… we have a lot of similarities. The first video I posted I was just trying to get the very early info out there to my about 170,000 followers at the time, just in case anyone knew anything about it.”
Beneath videos speculating about whether Gabby’s disappearance had also been linked to a newlywed couple that had been found murdered in Moab, Utah, the same weekend that Petito and Laundrie were stopped there by police (authorities ultimately ruled out any connection), comments like “The internet is going to solve this case before the FBI does,” abounded.
Then, against all odds, social media really did help to provide an update to the case when YouTubers from the channel Red, White & Bethune recognised the images of Petito’s distinctive white van in footage they had taken in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, where investigators discovered remains believed to be Petito’s. Jenn Bethune, one of the account’s owners, told “Fox & Friends” that she had only thought to review the tape after someone tagged her in a social media post calling on people who had visited national park on Aug. 27 to check through their footage to help aid investigators.
Of course, and perhaps not so shockingly, bad things can happen when the internet decides to play Columbo. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured hundreds of others, for example, Reddit sprang into action to “help” authorities nab the bad guys but misstepped badly when users incorrectly accused a man who had been reported missing as one of the suspects. (The accused man’s body was later found in a river, and the admins of the subreddit in question issued his family a formal apology).
In 2018, amateur sleuths in a small-town Facebook group staged an elaborate whodunit in an attempt to peg the killer of a 42-year-old mum who had lived in their neighbourhood, publicly lobbing hysterical speculative theories about their innocent neighbours in the process.
In these cases and others, well-meaning would-be detectives with zero training blur the line between the sexy, fictional mysteries with the gruesome and often mundane details of real-life murder cases. But for now, on TikTok, the amateur investigators are cheering their victory.
“I think by all of the creators sharing on TikTok, more people learned about the case [than] if it had just been shared on the news,” Toumaian said. “People who may have seen something but not thought anything of it became alerted because of how much was being shared on TikTok, and then they came out with that info.”