I have no problem admitting that I am an active consumer of all things true crime.
When I walk to class, I pop in my Airpods and listen to my favorite podcast: Serial Killers by Parcast Network. When I do my laundry on Mondays, I pull up Bella Fiori’s new “Mystery Monday” video on YouTube. And when I can’t sleep, I turn on a new Netflix true crime documentary to lull me to sleep.
In a way, true crime has become something we’re all so engaged by, yet so desensitized to, and true crime TikTok is only furthering those conflicting reactions.
Over the past month, the tragic disappearance of 22-year old #VanLife influencer Gabby Petito inspired true crime fanatics and internet sleuths alike to try and solve the mystery themselves.
Petito and her 23-year old boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, left from Long Island, New York in June for a lengthy, cross-country road trip. On this trip, Petito documented their travels on social media — until Petito seemingly vanished in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her boyfriend, Laundrie, returned to his home in Florida with Gabby’s van, but without his girlfriend. From there, the speculation began.
Across several social media platforms, internet users began crafting their own theories about what happened to Gabby, ultimately resulting in a viral phenomenon. As of September 24, #GabbyPetito has over 967.8 million views on TikTok. Under the hashtag, you’ll find thousands of videos about Petito’s disappearance: ranging from short form coverage, theories, presentations of evidence, and even videos about Petito’s birth chart and astrological profile. It seems as though everyone is talking about Petito one way or another — whether that’s about her horrifying disappearance or how the stars predicted her tragic fate.
And while some users claim they’re making Petito content out of genuine concern, I can’t help but to think that a lot of it is an opportunistic, clout-chasing, bandwagon attempt to profit off of a young girl’s disappearance and, eventually, her death.
Starting out as a few content creators reporting Petito’s story along with verified evidence, the TikTok true crime community actually aided in the investigation of Petito’s disappearance. On September 17, TikToker Miranda Baker posted a series of videos explaining how she and her boyfriend unknowingly picked up Laundrie as he was hitchhiking through the Grand Teton National Park on August 29. Baker’s information proved valuable, as it helped establish Laundrie’s whereabouts during Petito’s disappearance.
But it’s not the TikToks like Baker’s that are harming this investigation and others like it; it’s the true crime community members that jumped at the chance to cover something new and mysterious in hopes of going viral.
Earlier in the week, TikToks surfaced claiming that Petito had been spotted at a truck station in California. The true crime community spiraled into a frenzy, telling their audience that Petito was found in California based off of nothing but a photo of your average, American blonde girl. People who had been following the case were overjoyed about the possibility of Petito’s safety.
Unfortunately, that woman wasn’t Petito.
Until September 21 when Petito’s body was found, and despite the proof that the woman wasn’t Petito, the TikTok true crime community debated over if they had found Petito. Some even still claim that Petito was found at a truck stop in California, thanks to TikTok’s nonlinear FYP algorithm.
While some content has aided in the ongoing investigation, the videos that actually provided any sort of groundbreaking evidence were far and few between. Instead, the influx of Gabby Petito content saturated the investigation, bringing false claims and baseless evidence to the surface for audiences nationwide.
But it’s not just cases like Petito that have been blown up online, often spreading misinformation in the process. Last January, TikTok true crime fanatics began sharing a video of who they suspected to be Cassie Kay Compton, who was 15 when she was last seen on September 14, 2014. After seven years, was Compton finally found?
Sadly, no. Law enforcement quickly extinguished the claims, stating that this woman was not Compton.
I get it. Learning about mysteries is interesting. Following relevant cases is interesting. Discussing theories of what happened with your family and friends is interesting. But a lot of the time, we’re contributing to the dehumanization of very, very real people. And, in turn, we’re dehumanizing and desensitizing the horrifying things that happened to them.
The true crime TikTok community, if utilized in the right way, can be a great way to learn about cold cases from years ago, and can even be a great conversation starter at a dinner or a party. However, when it comes to an active investigation, I’m afraid true crime TikTokers may jump at the chance to play Sherlock Holmes and push information that is baseless, speculative, and harmful to the investigation.
So before you grab your magnifying glass and scroll through TikTok, consider treating active investigations less like a game of Clue and more like the terrifying reality they actually are.