The tragic case of Gabrielle Petito attracted international interest for various reasons: the mystery of her disappearance, the double mystery of her boyfriend disappearing and, perhaps most significantly, the fact that the pair had been traveling together and documenting their journey on social media. People had an almost proprietorial interest in the case. Somehow, it belonged to the internet.
Also relevant to the scale of the attention attracted by the case was the popularity of the ‘true crime’ genre. As well as stoking public interest in murders and disappearances, these have highlighted the fallibility of the police and the room for amateur involvement, with allegedly inadequate investigations being the focus of documentaries from Making of a Murderer to Sons of Sam and online investigators being the subject of Don’t F**k With Cats. After marinating in this cultural phenomenon, people were keen not just the follow the case but to participate.
Hashtags like #justiceforgabby spread across Twitter and Instagram. A subreddit was established so that people could discuss theories related to her disappearance. Before it was closed down, when her body was discovered, it attracted almost 100,000 users.
Members of the public seem to have helped the police. A travel blogger appears to have caught the whereabouts of Petito’s van on GoPro footage she had been taking, and this was apparently significant to the discovery of her remains. Jen Bethune located images of the van amid her footage after appeals for witnesses alerted her to their potential significance.
On the other hand amateur sleuths have also produced a lot of nonsense. If you are bald, young-ish and somewhere in North America, for example, there is a good chance that you have been misidentified as Brian Laundrie, Petito’s missing boyfriend, who is wanted by the police. He has been ‘sighted’ in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina and even Canada. I suspect that if Laundrie is still alive and has a lick of sense, he will not be showing off his features to the public, but will be taking advantage of a golden opportunity to shield them with a mask.
Other online ‘influencers’ have been more straightforwardly absurd and opportunistic. Self-proclaimed mediums have been ‘channeling’ Ms Petito. You only hope that her relatives have not come across their nonsense. These obnoxious individuals have been widely scorned, which is heartening, but still illustrate the worst excesses of the blurring of the lines between real tragedies and online entertainment. Of course, it would be cynical to suggest that many users of TikTok, Instagram et cetera are not genuinely saddened by Petito’s death and keen to bring her killer to justice. On the other hand, it would be naive not to acknowledge the extent to which the case has been exploited as a source for cheap thrills and the pursuit of a passing fame.
Such events will occur again, when a perfect storm of sensational elements are combined. It would absurd to pass over the potential for internet users to assist police investigations. This might sound like an absurd example but readers might recall when Shia LaBeouf, the troubled star of the Transformers movies, was attempting to raise a flag that bore the words ‘He Will Not Divide Us’ in a strange act of anti-Trump performance art. Wherever he put it, pro-Trump trolls took it down. They tracked it everywhere, even using flight patterns and contrails to identify its location when LaBeouf posted a photograph of the flag against the backdrop of the open sky. Collective obsessiveness and crowdsourcing, in other words, can be powerful tools.
Yet they can also be destructive. An obvious example is when a digital witch-hunt falsely smeared a young man named Sunil Tripathi as a suspect in the Boston bombings. Mr Tripathi had disappeared, and is believed to have committed suicide, but he had nothing to do with the crime.
The potential for swarms of social media users to latch onto falsehoods and half-truths is real and dangerous. Journalistic discourse surrounding ‘disinformation’ and ‘misinformation’, though, tends to blame the average Joe for such occurrences while assuming that there are authoritative sources of information that we should look to instead. Yet journalists and media outlets are also susceptible to the hysteria and opportunism that muddy such events. As Alexis Madrigal observed in his account of the sad case of Mr Tripathi, the rumor connecting him to the crime was soon picked up by Andrew Kaczynski of BuzzFeed, Digg’s Ross Newman, Politico‘s Dylan Byers and Newsweek‘s Brian Ries. A writer for the Verge commented that ‘the real blame may lie with with the journalists who elevated the rumor from the depths of a subreddit via not-so-innocent retweets’. Cases from the smearing of the Covington schoolboys to the recent misleading claims that border patrol agents wielded ‘whips’ against Haitian migrants also illustrate how the mainstream media creates or spreads mistruths.
There are no easy answers. We as users of the internet will have to evolve, absurdity by absurdity, to improve our standards of media consumption and evidential reasoning. We cannot assume that awareness is necessarily valuable if it appeals to our taste for the morbid and salacious rather than providing information of worth. We cannot take images for granted without questioning them, or at least the manner in which they are presented. We must separate mere rumor from substantive testimony. This might sound as if it is pushing back against the tide of human irrationality, and perhaps it is, but we have to try.
We hope that Mr Laundrie will soon be found alive and put on trial. In the meantime, though, we also hope that bald and bearded men who have nothing to do with him will be safe from wild-eyed amateur Sherlock Holmeses who think that they have found a fugitive.