TAMPA, Florida – If you search for Gabby Petito on any social media platform, you will find millions of posts.
When the 22-year-old disappeared on a cross-country trip with her fiance, who returned home to Florida with his van, Petito’s family asked the world to share their photo to help them to find her.
People weren’t just sharing it, thousands were trying to be real social media sleuths.
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People shared stories on TikTok of possible interactions with the couple, screenshots from Youtube possibly passing Petito’s white van, and even matching his videos and photos for clues.
A Facebook group started for theories and discussions to find Petito grew to 24,000 members across the country in a matter of days.
So what role can social media play in the search for missing persons?
Information about online crowdsourcing is not new, from photos and videos from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing to the latest riot on the Capitol on January 6, where social media provided the FBI with more than 200,000 photos for help catch the suspects.
But Gabby Petito is different.
“But this case has captivated the American public for, I think, a number of reasons: Firstly, this trip across the country, I think, added to that, and you know their very public life on social media certainly added to that. . We also had these body-worn camera images on top of that, ”said Ráchael Powers, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida.
The couples’ road trip from North Port, Florida, through Colorado and Utah to Wyoming, made many people feel close to the affair.
Petito being from New York, it also attracted more people from the Northeast.
Then, of course, there are the hikers, travelers, and bloggers who have felt close to Petito.
Many have posted on social media that they had previously been in an abusive relationship, and the body camera footage after the couple physically argued was triggering them.
On the other side of the actions to help the case are those who have become upset that Petito has gained so much media attention when people of color also go missing all the time and are never found. The claim is that she has gone viral because of her blonde hair and blue eyes.
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Sarah Stein, national consultant on cold cases, studied this “missing white woman syndrome” in her doctorate and said that was not the reason she went viral.
“People discussed Missing White Woman Syndrome and how it contributes to Gabby’s story and her appeal to the public, ”said Stein. “I think this is too simplistic an explanation. And there are so many different factors that made people want to help Gabby and one of them being that she wanted to be an influencer, she put her life in plain sight.
But social media isn’t always a good thing. It can also hinder an investigation.
A spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) said in an email: “Social media can certainly be a good tool in raising awareness of a missing topic. However, it can also be a breeding ground for misinformation. “
Powers adds, “People on social media are brilliant, and they approach things from an off-the-beaten-path perspective with creativity, but they also don’t approach it with investigative experience.
According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, nearly 550,000 missing people were reported in 2020 and 89,637 were still active at the end of the year.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System found that 40% of reported cases were over 20 years old, 22% were over 10 years old.
A missing person on the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office page is a young woman who went missing from Indian Rocks Beach in 2011.
“Kelly Rothwell has been missing since March 12, 2011. Rothwell was known to be alive for the last time when she was seen by a friend walking away from Chili’s restaurant in Clearwater, Fla., Around 3:38 pm. Rothwell had lunch with a friend and told her she was driving home to end a relationship with David Robert Perry, W / M, 8/4/64. Rothwell had planned to meet friends later that evening but never showed up. Rothwell’s vehicle was found parked at 2nd St and 4th Ave in Indian Rocks Beach. Rothwell has had no contact with anyone since that date. David Perry left for New York the same night and refused to cooperate with law enforcement.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Missing Persons
We asked Powers if she thought Rothwell could have been found if we had the same social media presence that we have now.
“That’s a good question. Potentially,” she replied. “The younger generation certainly has a big digital footprint where their lives are online, they are documented that they leave a written trail for everyone and I think in some ways can benefit law enforcement. “
“The period that there have been cold cases since the internet started, hopefully people will go back and try to find those missing pieces that would be phenomenal,” Stein added.
Petito dreamed of being a social media influencer, maybe her legacy is just that.
If you want to help find other missing, HCSO advises you:
- If you see anything unusual or suspicious, say something.
- Share information from legitimate news and law enforcement sources.
- Call the non-emergency line if you have any information, no matter how small.
The FBI has an online page dedicated to missing and / or kidnapped people. You can find it here.