A Wyoming coroner has ruled the death of van life influencer Gabby Petito a homicide. Police in Florida are still searching for her missing fiancé in a 25,000-acre nature preserve. Some on the internet who followed the case are celebrating as if they helped find Petito’s body and render justice.
“We brought Gabby home,” Haley Toumaian, one of the biggest accounts making content about the case, said on TikTok after police found the body. “We need justice for her.”
But it’s unclear what, if anything, the effect the social media investigation around Petito’s disappearance and murder was. Millions of people tuned into accounts like Toumaian’s to pour over the details of the case and share information. People with relevant information, such as Miranda Baker who claimed she gave Petito’s fiance a ride near where her body was found, stressed they had also shared information with police.
Petito’s murder and the wide-scale open-source investigations have sparked a conversation about what sorts of crimes capture public attention with the media and on social media. One obvious explanation is that Petito was a conventionally attractive white woman participating in vanlife (an aspirational lifestyle for some, an eye-roll-worthy lifestyle for others) who was aspiring to be a social media influencer. But Petito’s case has also sparked a series of conspiracy theories and frenzies that intertwine with other parts of the culture wars.
“People are participating for different reasons,” Isaac West, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of The Serial Effect: True Crime and Contemporary American Culture, told Motherboard. “It allows us to do two things: to think about motives and then to be part of the solution. So if there’s a mystery to solve and to think about how and why this particular act of violence occurred. That allows people to engage in both of these questions.”
In the world of open source true crime investigation, there are different levels. The vast bulk of the visible discussion takes place on Reddit, TikTok, and other social media platforms where people like Toumaian pump out video after video discussing the minutiae of the case in real time.
But then there are forums like Websleuths—a place where people gather to pick through cold cases and discuss trending true crime stories. The members of the Websleuths forum have almost 3,000 separate threads dedicated to famous cold cases like the West Memphis III, the River Killers, and JonBenet Ramsy. The users share court documents, tease out leads, and share theories. Petito’s case has truly captured the attention of both the forum and its moderators, who have set up nightly YouTube livestreams about the case.
Petito’s case was a hot one on Websleuths generating 15 separate threads and dozens of pages of discussion. In one of the early threads, a mod laid out the ground rules for the discussion.
“Gabby’s case is not connected to the double homicide—DO NOT BRING IT BACK INTO THE THREAD,” the moderator said. “Do not bring in COVID/ COVID shots, DO NOT BRING IN MENTAL HEALTH, do not start or encourage conspiracy theories, speculation or suggestions of hoax or drug use is not permitted, include links to sources, do not link to unapproved social media, post to engage in dialogue, not to bicker or argue with fellow posters, no sleuthing [Brian Laundrie’s] parents, WS is Law Enforcement friendly—It’s OK to have an opinion on the status of events but do not openly bash LE on WS.”
Websleuths launched in 1999 and was purchased by Tricia Griffiths in 2005. Now Griffiths manages the site and hosts an infrequent YouTube live show about ongoing cases that can run upwards of three hours. Websleuths has “investigated” thousands of cases and opinions among victims’ families and law enforcement are mixed.
“In most cases, one of the things people want out of the narrative is a sense of closure,” West said. “And so in many cases, the reason why people participate is in the hopes that they’ll be able to bring justice to a particular victim or see that justice was rendered to the perpetrator.”
The members of the Websleuths community contain trained forensic artists and other subject matter experts who have actually helped solve cases and bring closure to families. In 2006, the site's efforts helped solve the murder of a homeless man who’d won the lottery.
It’s hard to say right now if the internet-born investigation helped find Petito’s body. “In this case, did popular attention matter? I don’t know the answer,” West said. “But if I’m understanding it correctly, the pressure came from Gabby’s family. It goes public, but I’m not sure the police would have acted differently than they already were.”
West pointed out that law enforcement was already hard at work on the case when the internet took notice. “Attention to the case didn’t cause that search warrant to happen any faster,” he said. “People are participating in a social drama, but their participation and achieving justice are disconnected. One is not causing the other.”
But the victory laps online continue. “Right now I see people saying, ‘Oh it’s so great that people were involved and helping to solve this crime,” West said. “I’m dubious about whether or not people helped solve this.”
According to West, people recognize that there’s a difference between how the media and public treat missing or murdered white women and Black and brown victims, but that hasn’t meaningfully changed how people actually react or act when white women go missing. “There’s this interesting moment where I feel like some of this true crime pedagogy that’s been happening, the way that people have been encouraged to participate in true crime right now, is to recognize that you can be involved in a particular narrative but to also recognize that the participation in this narrative also highlights particular biases and tendencies that we have when engaging in true crime,” he said.
West said there’s a growing reflection in the culture about what it means to engage with so much true crime and why certain narratives are privileged above others. “We’re also seeing some correctives,” he said. “We have narratives that privilege non-white women and other kinds of victims as ways to think about ‘why are we engaging with these forms of entertainment?’”
On TikTok, Toumaian is posting with less frequency. Her most recent is a call for information about Daniel Robertson, a black man and a geologist who went missing in Arizona. It has 238,000 views. Her most recent post about Petito has 766,000.