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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Frazier

How the Internet Can Solve Real Life Crimes

The disappearance of a 22-year-old woman sparked national interest, in large part because of the online sleuthing of amateur detectives.

The disappearance of Gabrielle Petito, a 22-year-old who went missing while documenting her #vanlife journey alongside her fiancé Brian Laundrie, has captivated the nation for a week straight.

TikTok users' obsession with the case, which has yielded everything from regular case updates to analyses of her Spotify playlists, is part of what's turned Petito's disappearance into a "national sensation," as The New York Times reported.

Petito was reported missing on September 11 by her mother, who had last made contact with her daughter in late August. Laundrie refused to cooperate with the investigation prior to going missing from his family's Florida home on September 14, police told CNN.

On Tuesday, the FBI announced that remains found in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming were Petito's. The coroner's "initial determination for the manner of death is homicide," the department said in a statement.

Since Petito's disappearance became public, discussions around the case have abounded on social media and on TikTok in particular. In the process, the #gabbypetito hashtag has amassed over 820 million views. Speculation about the circumstances of Petito's disappearance and her death, and who may have been involved, has spread on the platform as well.

TikTokers who spoke to Insider regarding their posts on Petito's case said that for them, the goal was to raise awareness about Petito's disappearance on behalf of her family.

But there's been criticism of some of the TikTok activity around the case, including concerns about disseminating misinformation.

Many of the viral videos in the #gabbypetito hashtag on TikTok were posted from Friday, September 17 onward, but the case began to go viral earlier in the week, around September 14.

Paris Campbell (@stopitparis), a New York City-based comedian and writer, told Insider that she was one of the creators to post about Petito's disappearance early on, noting that there were only a few videos in the #gabbypetito hashtag when she uploaded a September 14 video sharing Petito's missing-person poster.

The obsession with Petito's disappearance led to a debate about how much creators, including some who gravitate towards true crime content or have posted frequently about Petito's case, had helped advance the investigation, as reported by BuzzFeed News. But it has also led to discussions over whether the content is insensitive.

People have also suggested the fervor around Petito reflects a bias towards missing white women as opposed to missing people from marginalized communities, such as Indigenous people, whose cases don't receive the same attention.

Jordan Wildon, a digital investigator who tracks online misinformation and disinformation, tweeted that "posting every little detail" of a case without verification can be counterproductive, and in some cases, harmful.

Ryan Luna (@doctor.ryan), who has 1 million followers on TikTok and recently graduated from medical school, has been posting updates on Petito's case since Friday and conducted an interview with Petito's brother and godmother live on TikTok. Some of his videos include speculation about the case. After making an error in one TikTok about Petito-Laundrie details, he corrected it in a separate video before ultimately deleting both.

"I understand the impact that receiving millions of views has and do not want to report inaccurate information," Luna told Insider.

He also said he and other TikTokers who have been posting about Petito weren't trying to take credit for solving the case, and added that he wants to raise awareness and help the family.

Do you think apps, such as TikTok, should keep investigating real life crimes? Leave your thoughts down below!

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