Haley Toumaian usually shares videos of her travels, meals and outfits with more than 470,000 followers on her lifestyle TikTok account. But this week, her posts have taken a darker turn, as she keeps track of the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito.
As of Saturday, she had posted 42 videos on the missing woman, who on Tuesday was confirmed to have died in a homicide.
“It just really struck a chord with me,” Toumaian said before the news of Petito’s death.
If social media is any indicator, she’s not alone. On TikTok, the #gabbypetito hashtag has been viewed more than 212 million times. The massive interest in the case has galvanized sleuths across the Internet, with content creators posting updates and sharing new theories every hour.
While that attention has magnified the public’s awareness of the case — an urgent goal in missing-persons cases — it also sparked a bevy of questions. People are reported missing every day, but few cases receive this kind of unwavering attention. Experts who study cultural trends and media note the underlying racial inequities that surface when some cases make headlines and others don’t.
In the online age, some have likewise been critical of what they see as an exploitation of Petito’s story for views and followers.
“There’s a lot of people who are capitalizing off of and profiting off of creating content that’s designed to dissect the last days that we know of this girl,” said Abbie Richards, who researches misinformation and disinformation on TikTok.
Petito had been on a cross-country road trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, who is now a person of interest in her disappearance. On Sunday, authorities found Petito’s body in Wyoming, where her family last heard from her. Her parents reported her missing on Sept. 11 after not hearing from her for more than a week, police said.
Laundrie returned to Florida in Petito’s van on Sept. 1, according to police, but Petito wasn’t with him. He refused to cooperate with police after the missing-persons report was filed, officials said, and has since vanished. Authorities scoured a Florida nature preserve but did not find him there.
The case hit a nerve for several reasons, even though no criminal charges have been filed. Petito’s family has made public pleas for the man their daughter was expected to marry to come forward with information on her whereabouts. Many can’t wrap their minds around how he has remained quiet.
There is also an online paper trail of sorts that seems to grow each day. Body-camera footage released by police in Moab, Utah, shows the pair got into an emotional fight before she disappeared. Petito had been an active Instagram user, providing an archive of her life since 2014 full of photos showing seemingly happier times.
“You’ve got this beautiful young couple, supposedly in love, making this romantic adventure across the country, and then something goes very bad,” said Scott Bonn, a criminologist who studies why certain crimes become cultural touchstones.
Although interest in this case has been particularly fervent on social media, Bonn noted the public’s preoccupation with the unknown predates the Internet. If Petito were a woman of color, he added, the national fixation on the case probably would not exist.
“It’s about our culture and our society,” he said. “We place a priority on whiteness. We place a priority on youth and on our expectations of physical beauty.”
Petito was the prime age of TikTok users, said Amanda Brennan, senior director of trends for XX Artists, a digital marketing agency. That could be another reason more users would identify with her case, Brennan said. She compared the case to that of Elisa Lam. Amateur investigators pored over her Tumblr page after she disappeared from a Los Angeles hostel in 2013.
When a case gains traction like this one has, law enforcement agencies get flooded with tips. And while some might be useless, John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and retired New York Police Department detective Michael Alcazar said those tips can be a critical source of leads.
“Most agencies don’t have that many detectives to canvass for witnesses, to canvass for any kind of evidence,” he said. “Now we have so many eyes out there, millions of civilian investigators, because now they’re on the lookout. It’s kind of like an Amber Alert, but more effective.”
One woman posted a TikTok about how she believes she and her boyfriend picked up Laundrie as a hitchhiker on Aug. 29 at Grand Teton National Park. She said she only learned who he was and reported the interaction to police after seeing TikToks about the case.
But others on social media have noted that many of the theories about what happened to Petito aren’t useful. Content creators have been dissecting every part of Petito and Laundrie’s social media accounts, ascribing meaning to the ways their emoji use has changed and raising questions about the meaning of camera angles and other choices.
Toumaian used to spend one or two hours a day looking into true crime cases as a side hobby for her amateur podcast. Now she is going to bed late and waking up early in hopes of cracking Petito’s case. Followers have sent her theories leading her down rabbit holes of research to post ones she believes the public should be made aware of.
Toumaian said she posts unverified claims with hopes that authorities and the public are informed. In one video, Toumaian shared a photo of a reportedly missing woman found at a gas station that resembled Petito, asking her viewers whether they thought the woman could be Petito.
Authorities later verified that the woman was not Petito, which Toumaian shared in an update.
“In cases like that, like that one woman, I think that it was beneficial that it was shared all over TikTok and social media, because I think that led the family and police to fully look into it to make sure that it was not Gabby,” she said.
Amanda Vicary, a social psychologist and professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, said people, especially women, tend to like true crime stories that provide information about how to prevent or survive an assault. Analyzing a suspected boyfriend or husband could yield clues for what red flags to avoid in relationships.
“We’re scared of it happening to us,” she said. “We’re scared of being a victim.”
True crime has become increasingly popular in the past decade, Vicary said, and she suspects that interest has grown with virtual communities created around the topic and more people online amid the coronavirus pandemic. The enthusiasm could forge a new generation of hobbyists.
Holly Allen, co-host of the podcast “Crimeaholics” and the main creator for the podcast’s TikTok account, has also been following the case diligently and posting updates to her hundreds of thousands of followers daily.
Allen said she thinks interest in this case is so high because Petito and Laundrie were prominent on social media — and because even before he disappeared, there were already questions swirling about why Laundrie wasn’t cooperating with the investigation.
She said that while theories posted online can quickly cross the line and become unhelpful, Internet sleuths are an asset to cases such as this one.
“These people dive deep,” she said. “They go into Pinterest accounts, they're looking at Spotify accounts. I think it’s just one more set of eyes on things, one more thing that might get passed up by investigators that average people might catch.”
Allen said running a true crime podcast means she hears a lot of accusations that she’s exploiting peoples’ tragedy for content. But she said loved ones of the missing and murdered people she talks about say they’re grateful her podcast is keeping their memory alive.
TikTok creators who are part of the platform’s creator fund make a small amount of money for each view they receive, and Richards explained that increasing a following can lead to higher-paying brand deals and other monetary benefits.
Richards said she listened to a podcast about the case where the hosts encouraged listeners to share the episode widely to increase the chances of someone finding Petito, but the pleas were interspersed with ads from companies like Snickers and IBM.
“None of that sat very well with me,” she said.
She called the videos “crime porn under the guise of awareness” and said people need to log off and stop playing detective.
Police in Moab and North Port did not respond to questions from The Washington Post about tips they have received from online sleuths.
Some are taking the case so seriously they traveled to Grand Teton National Park, the last place Petito was seen, to search for her.
Sunny Flaherty has been living in her van for about five years, part of a growing community of people embracing a minimalist lifestyle while traveling the country. She sees a lot of herself in Petito and was already headed toward the West Coast when she learned of her disappearance. She and her boyfriend diverted their trip’s route to help look for her.
“Gabby is a member of our van-life community, and the van-life community sticks together,” Flaherty said over the weekend. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
Whatever happens with this case, few expect Internet sleuthing to diminish anytime soon.
“I’m enough of a realist, to recognize that society is not suddenly going to say to itself, ‘Oh gee. You know what? This is really sad. We should not be relishing in this and enjoying this, we should feel sorry for these people and just let it play out privately,'” said Bonn, the criminologist. “I mean, come on. That’s not going to happen.”