The Intersection Of Internet Vigilantism And Missing People Of Color

September 21, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

Over the last few weeks, the case of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito has commanded the lion’s share of the internet and news media’s attention. Petito, a 22-year-old lifestyle vlogger (video blogger) from Long Island, was reported missing by her family around Sept. 10, while she was on a cross-country road-trip with her 23-year-old fiance Brian Laundrie.

Soon after her disappearance made news, people on social media trained their focus in on the search for her, possibly — according to some experts — seeing this as an opportunity both to participate in a real-time “true crime” case and out of a genuine desire to help reunite Petito with her family.

At one point, the tag #gabbypetito on TikTok had 77 million views; #findgabbypetito had 16.6 million views; and #gabbypetitoupdate had 7.3 million views. A subreddit r/GabbyPetito was expeditiously created on Sept. 13, and has amassed over 33,000 members, while the front page of Reddit has been overwhelmed by other threads regarding Petito from various subreddits.

Amidst all the attention, two main narrative threads have emerged from this entire case. Many are calling attention to this as the latest example of the “missing white woman” syndrome, while at the same time, others are decrying the rise of vigilantism among the public. In today’s piece, we take a look at both these issues.

Gabby Petito

Here is a brief summary of the Gabby Petito case for context.

Petito and Laundrie’s road-trip began in July 2021, shortly after they got engaged. Initially, the high school sweethearts intended to spend four months on the road, and documented their journey along the way on social media. Early in September, Laundrie returned home to Florida without Petito, with no explanation for where she was.

Petito’s family last spoke to her on Aug. 24, when she told her mother that she and Laundrie were heading into the Teton mountain range in Wyoming. A day later, Petito posted her last update on Instagram, and on Aug. 30, her family received the last text message from her. Subsequently, they reported her missing around ten days after Laundrie returned home.

As social media users sifted through material to see if they could spot a clue as to where Petito might be, on Sunday, Sept. 19, officers said they had found a body in the Grand Teton National Park that they believe to be Petito’s, though forensic testing has yet to confirm this. Meanwhile, Laundrie went on a hiking trip on Sept. 14 and hasn’t been heard from since, with his family reporting him missing over the weekend. 

Laundrie has been named as a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance, though he has not been charged with anything yet. The general consensus among armchair sleuths seems to be that he was involved in her disappearance, though there is scant evidence of this, as Laundrie did not speak to police before his own disappearance.

Missing And Murdered Women

Per the Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), over 600,000 children and adults go missing in the US every year. While many of these are quickly found, thousands are not found within a year, classifying them as “cold cases.” The government also says that around 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year, with around one-fourth of those still being unidentified a year later. Per the NamUs website, there are 20,690 missing persons cases, 13,819 unidentified persons cases, and 11,907 unclaimed persons cases still open and unresolved in the country.

Women and girls account for a majority of these missing persons cases. Women, in general, are more likely to be the victims of violent crime, including physical assault, sexual abuse, domestic violence, date-related abuse, and stalking. In the U.S., men, women, and children of color are disproportionately represented among violent crime and sexual abuse statistics.

For instance, in 2019, CNN wrote about how a disproportionate number of children under 18 who go missing are Black, as compared to the demographics of the overall population. Per the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), of the 610,000+ people reported missing in 2018, 60% were people of color.

Biometrica has written extensively about the epidemic of violence against women and, in particular, against Indigenous women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for Native women aged 10–24, homicide is the third leading cause of death. For those aged 25–34, it is the fifth leading cause. In some tribal areas, the murder rate of Indigenous women is 10 times higher than the national average.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Native American women are reported missing each year, with no resolution in sight. The FBI’s own database says that in 2017, Indigenous women accounted for 1.8% of all missing persons cases, despite only representing 0.8% of the country’s overall population.

As one example, the Seattle office of the FBI is seeking information on a missing woman, Mary Davis Johnson (Tulalip), who has not been seen since Nov. 25, 2020. They are offering a $10,000 reward in return for credible tips. Per a 2019 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute, the state of Washington is second in the nation when it comes to the number of cases of missing Indigenous women, with Seattle itself ranked the top city for such crimes nationwide.

Circling back to Gabby Petito’s disappearance, many have pointed out that at least 710 Indigenous people vanished between 2011 and 2020 in Wyoming, the state where Petito was last reported to have been in. Per Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, over half that figure were women.

In addition, the report found that 50% of missing Indigenous peoples are still missing a week after their disappearance, and 21% remain missing for over 30 days. This is in contrast to the 11% rate noted for white people who go missing in Wyoming. Some estimate that Indigenous people have been reported missing in 22 of the 23 counties in Wyoming, despite the state having only one official Tribal reservation.

Media Coverage

At the crux of this complicated issue is the fact that while Petito’s case has understandably drawn attention from the public and law enforcement, and her death — if confirmed — would be nothing less than a tragedy, there is also a disparity in the attention given to Gabby’s case, versus the thousands of other women and girls of color who go missing and unrecovered every year.

Thousands of people online are trawling through every possible nook and cranny of Gabby Petito’s online footprint, from looking at her social media profiles, where she documented her cross country road trip, to looking at what songs she added when to a public Spotify playlist. As one source put it, “Every new detail of the case has been pored over, analyzed, and dissected by dedicated groups of Petito investigators online.”

Meanwhile, the Wyoming task force also analyzed media coverage and discovered that around 51% of white homicide victims were featured in the news, as compared to 30% of Indigenous homicide victims.

The CNN report mentioned previously also cites several studies that found missing children of color get less media coverage than their white peers. One study from 2010 said that even though around 33% of all missing children being searched for by the FBI were Black, they only accounted for around 20% of the cases covered by the media. A 2015 study, CNN says, was even “bleaker,” finding that Black children accounted for 35% of missing children as noted by the FBI and only 7% of media coverage.

One academic study found that media houses are more likely to select white women to cover, and that such coverage is much more intense as compared to reporting on missing people of color.

True Crime And Vigilantism 

This frustration over the disparate attention paid to missing people of color is, however, a double-edged sword.

On one hand, many advocates lament the fact that a fraction of this same energy and effort put into finding or recovering missing or murdered people of color could be revolutionary in changing the face of this epidemic. On the other hand, this magnitude of scrutiny can be challenging to the police and authorities sincerely working on trying to solve cases and can, in fact, impede their efforts.

North Port Police Department’s public information officer, Josh Taylor, told BuzzFeed News that social media’s role in providing clues to find Petito have been helpful, though such efforts can oftentimes “derail the investigative process.” He also expressed a desire for people to turn footage in directly to the authorities, instead of posting it online and hoping it will go viral.

Taylor added, “You have to take the good with the bad. You might get a thousand completely insane pieces of information, but that one piece that might be the missing piece to the puzzle, it’s important.” 

Todd Shipley, president of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA) and retired senior detective sergeant in the Reno Police Department, on the other hand, told Mashable that amateur online investigators can be more of a hinderance, flooding understaffed and resource-crunched local law enforcement agencies with too much irrelevant information.

Actual detective work, per Shipley, is more complicated than most people would believe. “The true-crime-obsessed are re-cappers, not investigators,” he said. Amateurs do put in time and effort into their research and content, but they do not have access to the evidence themselves, nor do they have the training or other resources to investigate. This risks blurring “the lines between law enforcement detectives, investigative reporters, and online storytellers.”

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies not only have access to information they don’t release to the public, they also have access to specialized tools and technology that help them in their quest, whether that be arrest record databases, missing peoples’ databases, 911 call logs, etc. They also generally have years of training and trial-and-error on their side, and are able to exercise some caution before leveling allegations.

Unverified and misleading information can also direct a lot of harassment and vitriol towards the families of those involved in such a case, or towards mistaken suspects. In probably the most infamous example of this, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, members of one subreddit took it upon themselves to identify the second unknown bomber.

After the FBI released “grainy” suspect photos, one user created a collage juxtaposing that photo against another of Sunil Tripathi, a person they thought bore striking resemblance to the suspect. What followed was false accusations broadcasted to millions, Tripathi’s family being subjected to undue and unbelievable levels of vitriol and harassment, and eventually an admission that he was not at all involved in the bombing. In fact, Tripathi had already apparently taken his own life in an unrelated incident. The members of the subreddit essentially tried to act as a manual facial recognition algorithm, with borderline disastrous consequences.

So Is There A Way To Help?

It is not uncommon for law enforcement to solicit help from the public in solving cases. Europol’s “Trace an Object” program periodically releases censored and anonymized child sexual abuse images and video stills, crowdsourcing the public’s help in identifying any unique details in the background that may help identify the location of the abuse being documented.

Similarly, the FBI itself sought the public’s help in identifying those present at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. According to the FBI, it received over 270,000 digital tips from the public, hundreds of which resulted in arrests and charges being made.

The aim of such appeals, however, is meant to help the police trawl through troves of data in time-sensitive cases. It’s supposed to ostensibly serve additional pairs of eyes. Some, as in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, consider themselves smarter than law enforcement, believing they can collectively crack the case before the authorities do. One TikTok commenter on a Gabby Petito video even wrote: “I swear tiktok is going to solve this case before the FBI let’s gooooo fam!”

There is, some say, a fine line between helping out law enforcement and the kind of vigilantism that could, in theory, result in a trial by social media, before any conclusive evidence is even found.

Every day, social media is flooded with posts by concerned family members and loved ones about missing people. There are specific websites and databases that compile missing people reports from organizations like the Black and Missing Foundation and the Sovereign Bodies Institute’s MMIWG2 Database where people can go to see how they can help.

Overall, the feeling among law enforcement and investigators is one of understanding. When such cases make headlines, especially those that have a chance of still being resolved positively, people want to help where they can. And when these efforts are directed efficiently, they can be of tremendous help. Meanwhile, activists and people of color continue to hope that they can draw such levels of attention to their missing persons, and galvanize the internet to help find their loved ones.

As Toumaian, one TikTok user whose account has pivoted to sharing updates on the Gabby Petito case, says — “In five days, we found Gabby because of all that we put into this and we’re not gonna stop. […] We’re gonna keep reaching more people, we’re gonna keep finding people who are missing. We’re gonna help get justice for victims that have not gotten justice. We’re not gonna stop. We have such a big opportunity to make a difference in the world and we’re not gonna stop.”