When Gabby Petito’s parents reported their daughter missing three weeks ago, they turned to the public for assistance. An army of armchair true-crime sleuths heeded the call and began scouring social media posts and holding online discussions aimed at uncovering clues to aid law enforcement in finding her.
Given the benefit of crowdsourcing for missing persons searches, the question then becomes: How do we intentionally use this technique to help more people?
The phenomenon of Americans crowdsourcing their time and attention to assist law enforcement is not new. But Petito’s case adds a new wrinkle, because it shows what a difference these citizen detectives can make when armed with social media, particularly TikTok. That presents an opportunity for law enforcement to take advantage of, if it can be done in a more professional and equitable manner. Indeed, widespread citizen engagement on social media could be the secret weapon that turns the tide in the fight for missing persons.
Social media was part of the fateful trip that ended in Petito’s disappearance well before law enforcement got involved. She and her fiance, Brian Laundrie, had been documenting their trip across the country (the happy moments, at least) on Facebook and Instagram with photos and videos when the 22-year-old Long Island native went missing. Tourists who were visiting Grand Teton National Park at the time Petito disappeared then uploaded their own experiences and potential interactions with the couple to social media. At least one of these videos showed Laundrie’s van on the side of a park trail, Petito’s hat on the dashboard, her sandals on the ground.
The crowd investment paid off almost immediately. The Youtube video uploaded by tourists on Sept. 19 not only established a possible crime scene, but also helped police focus their search efforts. Petito’s body was found hours later, about 1,000 feet away from where the van was filmed. Establishing a focal point from which to search saved law enforcement from having to painfully scour the 485 square miles of the entire park and reduced the search time by weeks, if not months. And finding her body sooner rather than later not only helped preserve forensic evidence, but also provided at least some answers to Petito’s family.
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The public sleuthing didn’t stop there. The internet quickly lit up with theories as to what happened, with purported evidence to support them. At the center was social media platform TIkTok, a short-form video-based social media app. As of the end of September, TikTok reported over 1.2 billion views on posts containing the tag #gabbypetito.
TikTok has been a game changer for these efforts because of the way it’s designed to keep users engaged with content that’s relevant to them. TikTok uses one of the most advanced algorithms on the internet to constantly test and push carefully selected content to the users most likely to engage on those topics. This means that someone who shows an interest in a specific missing person case, like Petito’s, can often be drawn down the rabbithole of videos they’re shown on the same topic, staying engaged and searching for clues and new information. TikTok also promotes hashtags among 1 billion monthly users so they can quickly find content important to them.
This unique design made TikTok an information hub where several strangers who had interacted with Petito and Laundrie uploaded their eyewitness testimonies once they learned she was missing. One specific post claiming that a woman and her boyfriend picked up Laundrie and dropped him off within the park has over 1.8 million “likes” and over 36,000 comments. In another, a woman discussed observing the couple in an argument at a restaurant. While not all of these posts proved useful, many helped police obtain a better picture of what happened.
It’s important to note, of course, that our armchair sleuths are just assisting and are not “digital detectives.” Law enforcement professionals, who often spend the majority of their time searching for clues online, are specially trained to identify and preserve evidence from social media. They have access to advanced forensic tools to assist them in cataloguing and analysing large numbers of relevant posts across different platforms, and they are best positioned to judge the authenticity and relevance of online information.
The firehose of tips that the public deliver on social media may also be hard for smaller law enforcement agencies to keep up with. And there’s the risk that armchair sleuths might publicly point to innocent people, exposing them to harassment. In the search for Laundrie, we’ve had at least one false identification and an unknown number of incorrect sightings.
Still, as someone who trains police in these detection techniques, it's clear to me that the army of TikTok users and other social media gumshoes were helpful to the investigation, spreading awareness of the case and uncovering valuable information that aided law enforcement.
Given the benefit of crowdsourcing for missing persons searches, the question then becomes: How do we intentionally use this technique to help more people? For starters, how do we make sure that this powerful tool is used equitably? Many observers have asserted that Petitot’s blonde hair, blue eyes and attractive appearance affected the amount of attention her case has received. While that contention can be debated, we can say with certainty that we haven’t seen the same number of sleuths active in helping most of the 540,000 people who went missing last year. The media awareness that families of missing children are raising in the wake of the Petito case is a good start.
Another way to marshal these forces would be to adjust the social media platform algorithms so they focus more public attention on a much wider segment of the population that’s missing. Just as an Amber Alert for a missing child is automatically pushed out to smartphones, TikTok could automatically push relevant content on missing persons to users who were physically present in the area, those who are connected to the victim, or those who show a predisposed interest in assisting law enforcement in these types of investigations. TikTok and other social media platforms can also feature a wider variety of missing person cases on their home pages.
In our divided times, it’s encouraging to see people band together to help families search for missing persons. Now that TikTok and other social media have shown their usefulness in this endeavor by happenstance, let’s make a concerted effort to harness this technology to assist others in finding their loved ones, and getting answers.