For the past several weeks, the world has been gripped by the story of Gabby Petito. The 22-year-old YouTuber and Instagram personality was blogging her seemingly perfect “van life” trip across the US with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, when a disquieting report of an argument emerged, along with footage of the emotional aftermath. There were then two mysterious disappearances – firstly Petito; then Laundrie – and finally the denouement nobody wanted: confirmation, last night, that police have found a body.
If this reads like the script of a fast-paced TV drama, that’s likely because it has been treated as such. People at home have contributed to the search for Petito amid increasing global concern for her wellbeing. Fans were already gripped by the couple’s cross-country adventure, which they had been documenting on social media since setting off in July – a YouTube video showing them smiling and kissing has been viewed more than 2.3 million times – and after Petito went missing, interest in the pair only deepened.
Bodycamera footage of Petito appearing upset and emotional after an argument with Laundrie was also watched by millions – particularly after news of a police report from 12 August, which documented that the couple had been seen arguing and hitting each other.
Since then, TikTok and Twitter hashtags, Reddit threads, Facebook posts and Instagram accounts dedicated to her disappearance have sprung up in shocking abundance – #gabbypetito currently has a staggering 453.5m views on TikTok, while #findgabbypetito has 86.5m. There are multiple threads discussing her disappearance with the topic “true crime”.
People at home have analysed dashcam footage and Petito’s Instagram posts, have trawled through comments and “likes”, and shared theories and speculation on YouTube and Twitter. One family even posted footage of a white van on YouTube with a caption explaining it had been taken in the camping area in the early evening that day – the vehicle has since been revealed to likely be the converted camper van that Petito and Laundrie had been living in, and has been flagged with the FBI.
Some of this “armchair investigation” has no doubt proved incredibly useful – at a press conference on Sunday, FBI agent Charles Jones spoke through tears as he stated that the cause of death had not been determined, and said information the police had received from the public had been “remarkable”.
But rather than interest decreasing after the tragic news of human remains being found, it has only gathered pace – and is likely to continue to do so until the full story of what happened to Petito emerges. This week, protesters gathered outside Laundrie’s house to attempt to pressure him into cooperating with the police, yelling, “where’s Gabby?”. Thousands of comments have been left on the couple’s Instagram pages. Anger is wide and diffuse on social media.
It is time for caution. Not only is this an active investigation – meaning that whoever is arrested or charged will need to be entitled to a fair trial, so damning comments and public speculation could put that in jeopardy (some cases can even be thrown out if they are deemed to have been swayed too far by public opinion) – but it’s possible that in the frenzied race to #findgabbypetito, some have lost sight of what’s really happened.
This isn’t an episode of Clickbait on Netflix; these aren’t actors and actresses playing out a grisly tragedy for voyeuristic entertainment. Fever-pitch excitement on social media (and at times, it does look and feel uncomfortably like excitement) and competition for “clues” risks obscuring the simple fact that a young woman is dead, and her parents are currently experiencing every family’s worst nightmare – right now, in real time; not in some kind of “rewind and replay” delay.
It also feels possible that we’re so caught up in the “drama” of this sorrowful case that we are in danger of forgetting what the reality is for so many women worldwide. While we don’t know what happened to Gabby Petito yet and do not want to speculate, we are living through a “global pandemic of femicide”, according to the UN. Six women are killed every hour by men around the world, most by men in their own family or their partners; in the UK a woman is killed by a man every three days.
And, as has also been pointed out on social media, the intense flashbulb focus on Gabby Petito’s case is at odds with the thousands of women and girls of colour who go missing, yet don’t receive anywhere near the same fierce levels of attention. As the journalist Elizabeth Vargas said on Twitter: “There was similar national coverage of Laci Peterson. I did an hour long special at that time on four other pregnant women who vanished from the bay area at the same time Laci did. All women of color, none of whom were ever mentioned in the national media until our special.”
Be angry for Gabby Petito; follow her case, if you wish – but be mindful that for so many other women like her, this isn’t drama, but a grim and tragically regular reality. It’s also something their families will never be able to switch off.