Gabby Petito: Could social media help find other missing people?
TAMPA, Fla. — If you search Gabby Petito on any social media platform, you’re going to find millions of posts.
When the 22-year-old went missing on a cross-country road trip with her fiance, who returned home to Florida with her van, Petito's family asked the world to share her picture to help find her.
People didn’t just share it, thousands attempted to be true crime social media detectives.
People shared TikTok stories of possible interactions with the couple, screengrabs from Youtube possibly passing Petito’s white van, and even matching up her videos and photos looking for clues.
One Facebook group started for theories and discussions to find Petito grew 24,000 members from across the country within days.
So what role can social media play in finding missing people?
Crowdsourcing information online is not new, from the Boston Marathon bombing pictures and videos in 2013 to the most recent riot at the Capitol on January 6, where social media provided the FBI with more than 200,000 photos to help catch suspects.
But Gabby Petito is different.
“But this case has captivated the American audience for I think a couple of reasons: One, that cross country trip I think added to that, and you know their very public lives on social media certainly added to that. We also had that body-worn camera footage that added to that,” said Ráchael Powers, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida.
The couples road trip from North Port, Florida, through Colorado and Utah up to Wyoming, made a lot of people along the way feel close to the case.
With Petito originally being from New York, that also drew in more people from the Northeast.
Then, of course, there are hikers, travelers, and bloggers who felt close to Petito.
Many posted on social media that they were once in an abusive relationship, and the body camera footage after the couple had gotten into a physical argument was triggering for them.
On the other side of the shares to help the case, are those that have become upset that Petito got so much attention in the media when people of color go missing all the time too and are never found. The claim is that she went viral because of her blonde hair and blue eyes.
Sarah Stein, a national cold case consultant, studied this "missing white woman syndrome" in her doctorate and said it's not the reason she went viral.
“People have been discussing missing white woman syndrome and how it contributes to Gabby's story and her appeal to the public,” Stein said. “I think it's too simplistic of an explanation. And there are so many different factors that compelled people to help Gabby and one of them being she wanted to be an influencer, she put her life out there for people to see.”
But, social media is not 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 to create awareness about a missing subject. However, it can also be a breeding ground for false information.”
Powers adds, “People on social media are brilliant and they're coming at it from outside the box perspective with creativity but they're also not coming at it with an investigation background.”
According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, nearly 550,000 missing persons were filed in 2020 and 89,637 were still active by the end of the year.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System found 40% of their reported cases are more than 20 years old, 22% are more than 10 years old.
One missing person on the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office page is a young woman who went missing from Indian Rocks Beach in 2011.
The description reads:
“Kelly Rothwell has been missing since March 12, 2011. Rothwell was last known to be alive as she was seen by a friend driving away from the Chili’s Restaurant in Clearwater, Florida at approximately 3:38 pm. Rothwell had lunch with a female friend and advised she was driving home to end a relationship with David Robert Perry, W/M, 04/08/64. Rothwell had plans to meet up with friends later that evening but never showed. Rothwell’s vehicle was found parked at 2nd St and 4th Ave in Indian Rocks Beach. Rothwell has not had contact with anyone since that date. David Perry left for New York that same night and has refused to cooperate with law enforcement.”
Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Missing People
We asked Powers if she thought Rothwell may have been found if we had the same social media presence we have now, then.
“That’s a good question. Potentially,” she answered. “The younger generation certainly has a big digital footprint where their lives are online, they're documented they're leaving a paper trail for anyone basically to see and I think that, in some respects, can work to law enforcement benefit.”
“The period of time where there have been cold cases since the start of the internet, hopefully, people will go back and try and find those missing pieces that would be phenomenal,” Stein added.
Petito had a dream to be a social media influencer, her legacy may be just that.
If you want to help find others who are missing, HCSO advises:
- If you see something unusual or suspicious, say something.
- Share information from legitimate news and law enforcement sources.
- Call the non-emergency line if you do have information, no matter how small it may seem.
The FBI has an online page dedicated to people reported missing and/or kidnapped. You can find it here.