Earlier this week, social media was flooded with the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, a woman traveling across the country in a van with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie.
The couple embarked on the trip in June, but things took a turn for the worse when Petito was reported missing on Sept. 11 by her parents. This report was filed ten days after Laundrie had returned alone to the couple’s home in North Port, Florida.
On Sept. 17, Laundrie’s parents told the police that they had seen him leaving the house three days earlier with a backpack and a close source reported that he had left his phone and wallet at home. Two days later, human remains were found in Teton County, Wyoming; it was later confirmed by a coroner that they were those of Petito and her cause of death was a homicide.
As of right now, the hunt for Laundrie still continues.
Shortly after Petito was reported missing, sleuths on social media took to investigating. They started searching through her YouTube channel, which featured vlogs about her and Laundrie’s van life.
Social media users then checked her Instagram posts for clues about Laundrie’s disappearance and the mystery of what happened to Petito. One of the biggest discoveries came from a couple, Kyle and Jenn Bethune, who were at Bridger-Teton National Forest around the same time Petito and Laundrie were.
Upon reviewing footage they had taken in Wyoming, the Bethunes found a frame in which Petito’s white van was seen. They then reported their findings to the FBI and uploaded the video online. Upon receiving the information, officers went to the location where the van was seen and found Petito’s remains close by.
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In a similar fashion to citizens nationwide, many UM students expressed their concern and interest with the viral case.
Pujan Patel, a sophomore majoring in English and Sociology, told TMH about how the case works in direct correlation to a larger problem with law enforcement.
“Her case highlights how law enforcement continually ignores domestic abuse victims, with the specific instance being the body camera footage where police are seen fraternizing with Brian while Gabby is breaking down,” Patel said. “Simultaneously, you’ll see women of color, specifically black and indigenous women who are flat out ignored and are not allocated public resources for a nationwide manhunt, showing once again, a complicity by law enforcement.”
Patel explained how the case itself would not have received the same amount of attention without the internet.
“You had the whole country aware at the moment about case updates with platforms like TikTok, who’s virality is grassroots in comparison with other platforms,” Patel said. “Many people online, regardless of engagement with the case, got to see this case unfold. If it wasn’t for social media mobilization, Gabby’s case could have been swept under the rug — a common fate with BIWOC.”
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A UM freshman, who preferred to remain anonymous, cited how they looked through Petito’s Instagram posts obsessively to try and find clues to help even though they didn’t personally know her.
“It just breaks my heart to think that this girl is out there missing and hurt and no one knows where Brian is,” they said. “I want to help as much as I can because I would want people to do the same for me or anyone that I know.”