Inside TikTok’s Amateur Investigation Into Gabby Petito’s Disappearance

When Gabby Petito went missing on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, the internet banded together to help find her. Right now, it’s unclear if they actually helped.
September 20, 2021, 8:26pm
Collage of Gabby Petito's photos from Instagram posted on TikTok. Text says "Where Is Gabby Petito? 22-year-old Gabby Petito was on an extended road trip with her fiance Brian Laundrie."
Image: @literallylizzi and @doctor.ryan TikTok

For months, Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie documented their vanlife travels around the U.S. on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. For the last several weeks, Petito’s disappearance and the discovery of a body the FBI believes is her near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming have captivated social media, and have created a seemingly endless well of videos and posts about her disappearance. Her death has created one of the largest open-source missing person investigations the internet has ever seen, led essentially exclusively by untrained content creators.

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You can, for example, learn about changes Petito made to a Spotify playlist around the time she disappeared. 

“It has been reported that some really haunting songs, considering the situation, were added to Gabby’s Spotify playlist the day after she sent the last text to her mom,” TikToker and Petito sleuth Haley Toumaian said in a video about the songs. 

The two-minute clip efficiently runs down the pertinent facts of the Petito case before transitioning to a discussion of song lyrics. It’s the kind of thing you eventually see once you’ve spent the last few hours absorbing every detail you can about an ongoing missing persons case. 

The Spotify video is just another in an endless stream of Gabby Petito content, a morbid livestream true crime sideshow where gawkers and sleuths intermingle and trade theories under the hashtags #findGabby and #findGabbyPetito. The posts are reminiscent of the Reddit “investigation” into the Boston Marathon bombing, which ended tragically

This time, however, the open source investigation is occurring across a series of different social media sites, with various videos and theories going viral over the last several days (a TikTok made by Miranda Baker, who claims she picked up Laundrie as a hitchhiker near where police suspect Petito went missing, has been viewed more than 9 million times: "This is crazy! You're a big piece of this case!" one commenter wrote. "Commenting to stay on gabby petito TikTok," another said. "I swear tiktok is going to solve this case before the FBI let's gooooo fam!" a third said.) 

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Petito and Laundrie had been on a cross country roadtrip that left from New York city and ended somewhere in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. She was reported missing by her family on September 11. Laundrie returned to his family’s home early last week—without Petito—in a van registered to her. His family announced over the weekend that they hadn’t seen him in days, and human remains matching a description of Petito were found in Grand Teton National Park on Sunday.

Every new detail of the case has been pored over, analyzed, and dissected by dedicated groups of Petito investigators online. Until a body was found, the biggest new piece of information was more than an hour of Moab, Utah, PD bodycam footage that showed an interaction with the couple in an apparent domestic dispute. Law enforcement did not make any arrests—they merely separated the couple and had Laundrie spend a night in a hotel. The video was taken on August 12, a month before she was reported missing, and posted online on September 16.

Among the Petito investigators is Toumaian, who ran a mundane TikTok channel full of lifehacks and assorted musings until turning her attention to the Petito case. Now every new bit of information becomes two minutes of content that’s viewed millions of times. 

The leads and details are overwhelming and infinite. On Facebook, someone posted a photo of a woman taken at a truck stop in Lodi, California, claiming it might be Petito. For a few days, Redditors believed they’d found a picture of Petito in the background of a family photo taken at the Grand Tetons and posted on Facebook, but the rumor was disproved. 

There are other photos and other videos that include sightings of the van stuffed onto the side of the road and landscape photos with what may or may not be the blurry outline of a human in the background.

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Petito has become an obsession in part because the media often focuses on young, white women who go missing. But this case seems to have captured the attention of a huge portion of social media for a few other reasons. One, there’s the stunningly bizarre and seemingly damning actions of her fiance. Two, both Petito and Laundrie were attempting to be social media influencers themselves, and all of their accounts are still online. This means there’s a huge amount of content for people to analyze and attempt to read into.

When police announced the discovery of a body matching Petito’s description in the Grand Tetons, #FindGabby became #JusticeForGabby. “We brought Gabby home,” Toumaian said in a TikTok published after the body was found. “We need justice for her.”

It’s impossible, right now, to say how much of the virality of the story and the internet’s obsession with it contributed to the discovery of a body. The obsession of Michelle McNamara with unsolved serial murders in California helped catch the Golden State Killer and became the bestselling book I’ll Be Gone In the Dark. McNamara used a combination of amateur detective skills and internet research to build a cold case that had been dormant since the 1970s.

But amateur internet investigations have also previously ended disastrously, with people being falsely accused of crimes and harassed. After the Boston Marathon bombing, the “suspect” identified by Reddit was found dead shortly after a series of posts about them were made on the site.

Again, the body has not yet been identified. Laundrie is still at large and has not yet been charged with a crime. This has not stopped Toumaian from declaring a kind of victory.  “In five days, we found Gabby because of all that we put into this and we’re not gonna stop. I have 500,000 of you guys and we’re just gonna keep going,” she said in a recent TikTok. “We’re gonna keep reaching more people, we’re gonna keep finding people who are missing. We’re gonna help get justice for victims that have not gotten justice. We’re not gonna stop. We have such a big opportunity to make a difference in the world and we’re not gonna stop.”