Day 6

Online frenzy around Gabby Petito driven by social media influence, ethnicity, gender, experts say

The massive online frenzy that's formed around the Gabby Petito case is driven by a multitude of factors, according to true and high-tech crime experts, including the influencer's existing social media base, as well as her gender and ethnicity. 

American social media influencer disappeared during a months-long cross-country trip with her fiancé

This combo of photos provided by FBI Denver via @FBIDenver shows Gabrielle 'Gabby' Petito, who vanished while on a cross-country trip in a converted camper van with her partner. A body discovered Sept. 19, in Wyoming, has been identified as Petito's. (FBI Denver/The Associated Press)

The massive online frenzy that's formed around the Gabby Petito case is in part driven by her ethnicity and gender, according to true crime experts who highlighted that Black, Indigenous and other people of colour rarely receive the same level of attention as Petito.

"Unfortunately, mainstream media have come under criticism for decades that when cases and victims are typically young, white women, they get more media attention," said Kelli Boling, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who researches true crime podcast audiences, in an interview with Day 6 guest host Falen Johnson. 

"A young, white woman who was already very active on social media has just drawn a massive amount of attention for the perfect storm of demographics." 

Petito was an American social media influencer who disappeared during a months-long cross-country trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie. 

This police camera video provided by The Moab Police Department shows Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was travelling in with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12. The couple was pulled over while they were having an emotional fight. Petito was reported missing by her family a month later. (The Moab Police Department via AP)

The couple had documented aspects of their trip on social media platforms, including Instagram and TikTok, as part of the "van life" trend, which sees people let go of their possessions in order to live a life on the road. 

Evidence suggests Laundrie returned alone from the trip on Sept. 1, and Petito's family reported her missing on Sept. 11.

Days later, Laundrie also disappeared. 

Human remains believed to belong to Petito were found in a national forest in Wyoming on Sept. 19, and a forensic report released on Sept. 21 confirmed that was the case.

This photo provided by North Port Police Department, law enforcement officials conduct a search of the vast Carlton Reserve in the Sarasota, Fla., area for Laundrie on Sept. 18. Laundrie is a person of interest in the disappearance of Petito. (North Port Police Department/The Associated Press)

Initial coroner findings suggest Petito died by homicide. 

Laundrie remains missing, and he's a person of interest in the case. 

Video and audio footage released to the public by U.S. law enforcement seems to indicate that there was a level of turbulence in the relationship between Petito and Laundrie. 

In one incident captured in a 911 call made by a man who saw the couple fighting in Moah, Utah, Laundrie allegedly physically assaulted Petito by slapping and hitting her. 

Boling said that has also likely helped to fuel the public's interest in the case.

"One in four women are going to be subjected to intimate partner violence sometime in their life," Boling said. "This type of violence, unfortunately, is very common … And so it's natural to feel like you want justice to be served here." 

This police camera video provided by the Moab Police Department shows Laundrie talking to a police officer. (The Moab Police Department/The Associated Press)

She also suggested that some audiences have a natural affinity for crime or mystery stories, finding cases like Petito's "very intriguing."

"It's almost like a puzzle that they want to solve," Boling said. 

Huge volume of documentation

At the same time, Amanda Vicary, an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University, said she believes the sheer amount of documentation available to online audiences — including social media posts published by both Petito and Laundrie, as well as video and audio evidence released by law enforcement — meant that people were able to easily involve themselves in the investigation.

"There's just so much out there for people to listen to and see that I think it made it more real to people and made it easier for them to become invested in the case," Vicary told Day 6

Not only have users posted calls for action in support of Petito across social media, but they've also submitted thousands of tips to aid in the ongoing law enforcement investigation. 

A U.S. Park Ranger vehicle drives in the Spread Creek area just east of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Sept. 19, where authorities found her body. (Amber Baesler/The Associated Press)

Before Petito's body was eventually found, one pair of social media users even submitted to the FBI video footage that was recorded in August of a van that closely resembled the vehicle driven by Petito and Laundrie during their trip.

Her remains were located close to where that footage was recorded.

Boling said it's not rare for online communities to affect criminal cases, explaining that "there have been judges that have cited podcasts in their decisions and in their briefings."

However, high-tech crime expert Todd Shipley told Day 6 it can be overwhelming for law enforcement agencies — especially those with fewer staff members — to parse through the sheer volume of tips that can be generated by high-profile cases that gain traction online. 

"Those people have to know that law enforcement can only move so fast with the information," said Shipley, president of the High-Technology Crime Investigation Association. 

"If you give them an overwhelming amount, the only thing that the group has done is slow law enforcement's ability to respond, because now they've got to look through this and figure out the quality of the information and then move forward."

Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra, with files from Associated Press.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.