TAMPA, Fla. — Searching for “Gabby Petito” on any social media platform brings back millions of results.
When the 22-year-old went missing on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, 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 those photos — thousands attempted to be social media true crime detectives.
People shared TikTok stories about possible interactions with the couple. Screengrabs from YouTube could have shown Petito’s white van. Social media users even matched her videos and photos to find clues.
Within days, one Facebook group, which was started to discuss theories on how to find Petito, grew to 24,000 members from across the country.
What role does social media play in locating missing persons?
Crowdsourcing information online has been around for a while. From photos and videos from the Boston Marathon that were shared online in 2013, to the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, where social networks provided more than 200,000 photos to assist the FBI in catching suspects, crowdsourcing is nothing new.
Gabby Petito’s case is an exception.
“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,” said Ráchael Powers, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida. “We also had body-worn video footage that added to this.”
Many people felt close to the couple on their road trip from North Port in Florida to New York, through Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
Petito was also felt close by hikers and other travelers.
Many shared their stories on social media about being in abusive relationships. The body camera footage of the couple after they got into a physical altercation was very distressing for them.
Some have also voiced their disapproval at the media coverage of the case. They claim Petito’s whiteness meant that the case received greater media coverage, while people of color are often not given the same attention.
Sarah Stein, a national cold-case consultant, said that she did not find the virality due to this “missing white women syndrome”.
Stein stated that people have been talking about “missing white man syndrome” and how it contributed to Gabby’s story, and her appeal to the general public. I think it’s too simple. Gabby was motivated by many things. One of those factors was that she wanted to be an influential person. She also put her life out for others to see.
However, social media isn’t always a positive thing. It can also slow down an investigation.
A spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) said in an email that “social media can certainly be a good tool to create awareness about a missing subject. But it can also encourage false information.
Powers stated that social media users are creative and innovative. However, they don’t have a background in investigation.
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 42% of reported cases were older than 20 years, and 22% are older than 10 years.
Kelly Rothwell is the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office’s missing person page. She is a young lady who was reported missing in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, in 2011.
The post states that Kelly Rothwell was reported missing on March 12, 2011. Rothwell was last seen leaving Clearwater’s Chili’s Restaurant at 3:38 PM. Rothwell was having lunch with a female friend. She informed her she was returning home to finish a relationship with David Robert Perry (W/M, 04/08/64).
Rothwell was supposed to meet up with her friends later in the evening, but she never showed up. Later, her car was found abandoned at Indian Rocks Beach in Florida. Since that time, she has not spoken to anyone.
Perry fled for New York the same night, and has refused cooperation with law enforcement.
Powers stated that if social media had been more widely used in 2011, it might have helped in the search for Rothwell.
“The younger generation definitely has a huge digital footprint of their lives online, they’re documented and they leave a paper trail that anyone can see. I believe that this can, in certain respects, work to law enforcement’s benefit,” she stated.
Stein stated that there has been a lot of cold cases in the past few years. “Hopefully people will return and try to find those missing pieces.” Stein agreed.
Petito had always hoped to become a social media guru. Her legacy could be that.
For those wanting to help find others who are missing, the HCSO advises:
- If you see something unusual or suspicious, say something.
- Information from law enforcement and legitimate news sources can be shared.
- If you have any information, don’t hesitate to call the non-emergency number.
Click here Visit the FBI’s page on missing or kidnapped persons.
This story was originally published by Stassy Olmos on Scripps station WFTS in Tampa.