Social media’s exploitation of Gabby Petito’s death is morally wrong

Ashley Pelletier, Arts & Life Editor

If you know me, you know that a significant amount of my free time is spent watching videos on TikTok. During the week of Sept. 12, I began seeing TikToks of a 22-year-old influencer who had gone missing, Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito. I saw so many posts, I finally gave in and informed myself on the situation.

Many social media influencers are taking advantage of the tragic death of Gabrielle Petito, gaining massive amounts of views. (Photo released by Petito family)

Petito went on a nationwide roadtrip in a van with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, and decided to share their experiences on social media. In August, the social media posts came to a halt. On Sept. 1, Laundrie returned to their home in Florida with the van, but without Petito. Ten days later, Petito’s family reported her missing and Laundrie’s family acquired a lawyer, refusing to cooperate with police.

The story blew up on both social media and mainstream news media. A nationwide search began.

I do not believe using social media to gain news attention for a missing person is wrong. In fact, I think that social media is an incredibly important tool for investigators. However, the way that social media users handled the Petito case was disturbing.

I saw TikToks about Petito constantly, and it was clear that users were using a tragedy to gain followers. It was difficult to watch statements from Petito’s family come out, begging for their daughter to be found, while “true crime” junkies theorized and gossiped about the case on a public platform. Where is the humanity in that?

In fact, one TikTok user, Paris Campbell, has uploaded over 50 videos relating to the case since Sept. 13. All of the videos combined have over 45 million views as of Sept. 24. This user qualifies for TikTok’s Creator Fund in which users get paid for views. Based on reported numbers for how much TikTok creators receive per view, Campbell would make over $1,000 for these videos overall. She is one of many who have made numerous videos about the case.

TikTok creator Paris Campbell has made dozens of videos with millions of views about the death of Gabby Petito. (Screenshot from TikTok/@ stopitparis)

True crime fans are not the only ones seeking to profit off of public interest in the Petito case. According to Insider, some psychics and mediums on TikTok claimed to know where Petito’s body was or tried to channel her spirit. While I think there is some truth behind the idea of psychics, the claims these users are making are harmful not only to the investigation of Petito’s death, but to her family as well.

I can only imagine how this frenzy is impacting the Petito family. Seeing people who never knew her try to use her name and image for profit when she was just killed is harrowing.

However, true crime has been around for years. The first time that true crime as we know it came to be was in 2014 when the podcast “Serial” first came out. It originally reexamined the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old from Baltimore. What makes “Serial” different, however, is its host Sarah Koenig. She worked as a journalist for ABC News and The New York Times. Koenig understands the ethics of reporting on sensitive topics like murder. TikTok users who want to get millions of views for money likely do not.

I used to really like true crime videos and podcasts. Much like a majority of true crime fans, I had a morbid fascination with serial killers and their victims. I now realize that this obsession can become problematic. The focus on murderers and their victims does not give families involved the respect and distance that they deserve.

I could name you several of Ted Bundy’s victims, but I could not tell you anything about them beyond their victimization. True crime reduces the victims of horrible crimes to atrocities that have happened to them. We forget that these are real people whose families are watching as social media users post by the thousands, trying to monetize their grief.

As I said before, social media is a tool that should be used to help investigators solve missing persons cases. Without social media, it may have taken a lot longer for Petito’s body to be found. There have also been many cases before this one in which these platforms have played an integral role in solving a crime.

A recent example of this would be the FBI investigation of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The FBI used hundreds of images posted to social media to apprehend both rioters who posted about the insurrection itself and those who were identified by others.

I used to really like true crime videos and podcasts. Much like a majority of true crime fans, I had a morbid fascination with serial killers and their victims. I now realize that this obsession can become problematic.”

— Ashley Pelletier, arts & life editor

However, the problem lies in people posting their findings to social media first rather than contacting the proper authorities.

According to North Port, Florida’s police department’s public information officer, Josh Taylor, the Petito investigation has been aided by tips posted on social media. For instance, a couple posted a video of them seeing Petito’s van on YouTube after sending the video to the FBI. However, the North Port Police Department did not receive the footage.

“It looks like their vehicle … but we learn about it through them posting on YouTube, talking about it,” Taylor said in an interview with Buzzfeed News. “Why wouldn’t you just send that to us? And say, ‘This might be helpful to our investigation,’ instead of giving a 14-minute commentary on (it).”

The fact that people, regardless of their true aid to the investigation, are using others’ victimization for views online is a moral problem that our society must come to terms with. On one hand, social media can be used for genuine good. On the other hand, there will always be those looking to make a quick buck.

Had the users who are posting about Petito and other “true crime” cases dedicated the money that they made from their videos to helping the families of victims, then I may be more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. However, they aren’t. They are pocketing money from the death of a young woman who had people who loved her and will miss her every day for the rest of their lives. There’s no humanity in that.