The case for true crime TikTok

TikTok’s algorithm turbocharged the Gabby Petito case, and the rest of social media followed suit.

Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, from Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci.🧩

I, for one, can’t wait for my For You Page to go back to cooking videos and small businesses. —Kate

I have never sought out news about Gabby Petito, and yet, somehow, I’ve seen police bodycam footage of her crying on the side of the road. I love a true-crime doc on a Friday night or listening to murder podcasts while making pottery, but real-time missing persons and murder investigations give me too much anxiety, so I tend to scroll right by. TikTok shows it to me anyways. 

Online sleuths are not new, certainly not to Reddit and other online forums. The late Michelle Mcnamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark details how she, through the help of her online community, identified the East Area Rapist, Original Night Stalker, and the Visalia Ransacker as one person: The Golden State Killer. Two years after her death, he was identified as Joseph James DeAngelo and arrested. In 2020, DeAngelo pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder committed during burglaries and rapes and 13 counts of kidnapping, and is currently serving life in prison.

But true crime forums are insular. You need to seek out the spaces where people are discussing ongoing investigations and embarking on their own—they won't just spill over into forums about make-up or relationships.

Not so on TikTok. While the algorithm is heavily dependent on the content that interests you, the content that interests other people appears to be just as influential on your feed. As users rallied around Petito’s disappearance—the hashtag of her name has over 646 million views—the most popular videos began surfacing on my For You Page, in between my normal videos of dogs and women's soothing morning routines.

TikTok doesn’t just eliminate the boundaries between genres of content—it also drives conversations on other platforms. With social media having (mostly) welcomed TikTok as its overlord, the app's trends are retooled by users everywhere hoping to get a slice of the attention. That’s how you end up with this.

I understand the criticism that's been levied against TikTokkers and the internet in general for treating Gabby Petito's disappearance and death as entertainment (although I think the blame would be better placed on how platforms incentivize that behavior). But I’m also wary of sweeping excuses to dunk on content creators, especially when two of those creators appear to have made a video that authorities used to help locate Petito's remains. 

The YouTubers Kyle and Jenn Bethune were told by a friend who had been following the Petito story online that they may have been in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest at the same time as Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie. This prompted Jenn to review their footage from the trip, which is where she discovered a background shot of Petito’s van. They posted the footage to YouTube and TikTok, and viewers went wild. Remains matching the description of Petito were found in the area shortly after, on September 19.

Speaking to BuzzFeed, North Port Police Department public information officer Josh Taylor articulated a common criticism of the Bethunes and their video: "It looks like their vehicle ... but we learn about it through them posting on YouTube, talking about it. 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]."

I saw a lot of people run with this talking point, but this morning The New York Times revealed that the Bethunes did immediately contact the FBI when they discovered Petito’s van in the footage: “Ms. Bethune called the F.B.I. to alert them to their discovery. The person she spoke to directed her to a website to share tips about Ms. Petito. They uploaded the video there and also added it to the beginning of a video they had planned to release that morning.”

Personally, I'm not interested in watching heartbreaking crime investigations play out in real-time on my feed, but that’s something TikTok itself will need to grapple with. Limiting online crime content wouldn't be unprecedented: After Redditors wrongly accused a 22-year-old student of being involved in the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013, the moderators of the “Reddit Bureau of Investigation” (r/RBI) instituted a rule that prohibits any discussion of criminal matters, directing users instead to the police. But if the online conversation did indirectly contribute to the discovery of Petito, and potentially any future developments, it’ll be hard to make a case to shut the conversation down. In the meantime you, like me, can feel free to scroll right by it.