A true-crime case unleashes speculation and opportunism on TikTok.
When Influencer Gabby Petito disappeared, social media embraced the case, generating millions of views.
Information takes on meaning of its own as it travels, attracting opportunists using hashtags as clickbait.
There is real danger in true crime speculation that activates our survival instincts, but the appeal goes deeper than rubbernecking.
The wealth of social media content on Petito generated empathy, identification, and parasocial connections, creating emotional investment.
True crime is appealing. Call it morbid curiosity, but we can’t look away. True crime speculation about the attractive young Influencer Gabby Petito, who went missing, ignited the public’s curiosity and demonstrated the power of network communications.
People on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter all got involved, eager to be amateur detectives, poring over Gabby’s social media posts and trying to hunt down clues to solve the mystery. The attention snowballed, and fascination grew. The hashtag #gabbypetito gained millions of views. The event inspired new Instagram and TikTok accounts created to track the unfolding story and an avalanche of unofficial content in TikTok videos. While claiming to help the cause, most posts are little more than TikTok clickbait full of homegrown theories, deconstructing the social media documentation of Gabby’s relationship with her fiancé and capitalizing on often imaginary embellishments to Gabby’s story.
Sadly, Gabby’s body has been found and ruled a homicide. Yet, the drama continues. Authorities are now hunting for her fiancé, who has disappeared into the snake and gator-laden reserves of Florida. Fans will rally to the new plot points. #justiceforGabbyPetito. TikTok knows drama.
Hearing about missing persons, murder, and betrayal is scary. Thanks to our primitive brains, we are hardwired to react to danger—instinctive fear response is the root cause of what is little more than true-crime rubbernecking on social media over the Petito case. Fear triggers adrenaline which activates our attention to keep us safe. However, what was adaptive on the savannah doesn’t work well on social media where the virtual feels real.
True Crime as a Primer for Staying Safe
Women tend to be more interested in true crime than men, no matter the medium. Women are more likely to fear being a victim, and Gabby was a woman. Consequently, women have more incentive to pay attention to the potential danger implied by this story. People learn through observation and outcomes and gain insights into motivations and behaviors. If someone feels vulnerable, true crime stories are not just cautionary tales but a source of insights and strategies about staying safe and surviving.
Empathy, Identification, and Parasocial Investment
Gabby Pepito was a young, attractive woman exploring nature and chronicling her adventure on social media. She was not the typical Influencer grandstanding fancy outfits or pouty lips but presented an authentic back-to-nature way of life. Those inspired by her seemingly idyllic adventure or those who desire social media fame can empathize and identify with her. Gabby’s social media content provided a treasure trove of images and texts for others to interpret, share, and manipulate. Spending time with someone on social media looking at their images, reading about them, and watching their videos also increases emotional connection and attachment. The emotional investment increases interest because it is now about you as well as about them. The sense of knowing increases the relational experience—even if you have never actually met the person. These parasocial, or one-sided, relationships are amplified by audience participation and community affiliation because they reinforce the value of the connection. Creating content, following, sharing, and attracting likes and followers allow people to move from connection to ownership, enhancing identity. Perceptions that they are somehow “helping” enhance feelings of competence, confirm their relationship with the victim, and let them feel smarter and safer.
The Appeal of a Good Story
True crime is a narrative. Narratives signal a linear causal path and our brains fill in the blanks. The murder of a young woman and a missing fiancé makes a compelling story arc with crisis and a conflict between good versus evil. It’s an opportunity to explore the darker side of human nature with psychological distance. TikTokers become the storytellers, creating fan fiction by embellishing and furthering the narrative through the constraints and artifice of a three-minute video loop, speculation, projection, and fantasy. It’s feeling over facts.
In uncertain times, true crime stories can provide comfort because the narratives have a predictable arc that promises resolution, one way or another. Stories are a microcosm of real life, so endings are not always happy, but they do end. When there is uncertainty in the world, people crave resolution to restore order. Expect new fervor around #justiceforgabbypetito, especially with speculation about domestic violence.
It is unfortunate for the Petito family that Gabby’s case has been so publicly exploited. Whatever initial gratitude the family might have felt from public support, the avalanche of speculation must be extraordinarily painful. My heart goes out to them. They are the ones who need our compassion and respect now.
Pamela Rutledge, PhD, is a scholar-practitioner, integrating her expertise in media psychology with 20+ years as a media producer. A member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University since 2008, Dr. Rutledge teaches in the areas of brand psychology, audience engagement and narrative meaning. Dr. Rutledge consults with entertainment companies, such as 20th Century Fox Films and Warner Bros., on data strategies and audience narratives. Dr. Rutledge has published both academic and popular work, including a text on positive psychology and psychological appeal for fans of the Twilight Saga and resilience in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She has also written book chapters on meaning-making and fandom, transmedia narrative engagement, and positive media psychology. She authors “Positively Media” for Psychology Today and is also a frequent expert source on media use and popular culture for media outlets such as The NY Times, The BBC World and ABC News. She holds a PhD and an MBA.