When Gabby Petito’s parents reported their daughter missing three weeks ago, they turned to the public for help.
An army of real-life wheelchair crime detectives answered the call and began scouring social media posts and holding online chats aimed at uncovering clues to help law enforcement find her.
Given the benefit of crowdsourcing for missing person searches, the question then becomes: how do we intentionally use this technique to help more people?
The phenomenon of Americans outsourcing their time and attention to help law enforcement is not new. But Petito’s case adds a new wrinkle, as it shows what a difference these citizen sleuths can make when armed with social media, especially TikTok. This represents an opportunity for law enforcement to take advantage, if it can be done in a more professional and fair manner. Indeed, widespread civic engagement on social networks could be the secret weapon reversing the trend in the fight for missing persons.
Social media was part of the fateful journey that ended with Petito’s disappearance long before law enforcement got involved. She and her fiance, Brian Laundrie, had documented their trip across the country (at least the happy times) on Facebook and Instagram with photos and videos when the 22-year-old Long Island native went missing. Tourists visiting Grand Teton National Park around the time of Petito’s disappearance then uploaded their own experiences and potential interactions with the couple on social media. At least one of those videos showed Laundrie’s van at the edge of a park trail, Petito’s hat on the dashboard, his sandals on the floor.
Crowdfunding paid off almost immediately. The Youtube video uploaded by tourists on September 19 not only established a possible crime scene, but also helped police focus their search efforts. Petito’s body was found hours later, about 300 meters from where the van was filmed. Establishing a focal point to search from saved law enforcement the hassle of scouring the 485 square miles of the entire park and reduced search time by weeks or even month. And finding his body as soon as possible not only helped preserve forensic evidence, but also provided Petito’s family with at least some answers.
The public detective didn’t stop there. The internet quickly lit up with theories about what happened, with alleged evidence to back it up. At the center was the TIkTok social media platform, an abridged video-based social media app. As of the end of September, TikTok reported over 1.2 billion views on posts tagged with #gabbypetito.TikTok has been a game-changer for these efforts because of the way it’s designed to keep users engaged with content that is relevant to them. TikTok uses one of the most advanced algorithms on the internet to continuously test and deliver carefully curated content to users most likely to engage in these topics. This means that someone interested in a specific missing person case, like Petito’s, can often be drawn to the maze of videos shown to them on the same topic, staying engaged and searching for clues and news. information. TikTok also promotes hashtags to one billion monthly users so they can quickly find content that’s important to them.
This unique design made TikTok a clearinghouse where several strangers who had interacted with Petito and Laundrie uploaded their eyewitness accounts once they learned of his disappearance. A specific article claiming that a woman and her boyfriend picked up Laundrie and dropped him off in the park has over 1.8 million “likes” and over 36,000 comments. In another, a woman discussed watching the couple during an argument at a restaurant. While not all of these messages turned out to be helpful, many of them have helped the police get a better idea of what happened.
It is important to note, of course, that our armchair detectives only assist and are not “digital detectives”. Law enforcement professionals, who often spend the majority of their time searching for clues online, are specially trained to identify and preserve social media evidence. They have access to advanced forensic tools to help them catalog and analyze a large number of relevant publications on different platforms, and they are in the best position to judge the authenticity and relevance of information online.
The mass of advice the public gives on social media can also be difficult for small law enforcement agencies to follow. And there is the risk that armchair detectives will publicly point fingers at innocent people, exposing them to harassment. In Laundrie’s research, we had at least one false identification and an unknown number of incorrect observations.
Yet, as someone who trains police in these detection techniques, it’s clear to me that the army of TikTok users and other social media sleuths have been helpful in the investigation, bringing awareness to the investigation. case and uncovering valuable information that helped law enforcement.
Given the benefit of crowdsourcing for missing person searches, the question then becomes: how do we intentionally use this technique to help more people? For starters, how do you make sure that this powerful tool is used fairly? Many observers have claimed that Petitot’s blonde hair, blue eyes and attractive appearance affected the amount of attention his case received. While this claim is debatable, we can say with certainty that we have not seen the same number of active detectives assisting most of the 540,000 people reported missing last year. The media awareness that the families of missing children are raising awareness in the wake of the Petito affair is a good start.
Another way to harness these strengths would be to adjust the social media platform’s algorithms so that they focus more of the public’s attention on a much larger segment of the missing population. Just as an Amber alert for a missing child is automatically broadcast to smartphones, TikTok could automatically broadcast relevant content about the missing persons to users who were physically present in the area, to those who are connected to the victim, or to those who are showing a predisposed interest. to help law enforcement in this type of investigation. TikTok and other social media platforms may also feature a greater variety of missing person cases on their homepages.
In these times of division, it is heartening to see people coming together to help families search for missing persons. Now that TikTok and other social media have casually shown their usefulness in this endeavor, let’s make a concerted effort to harness this technology to help others find their loved ones and get answers.
Adam Scott Wandt is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Vice President for Technology in the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Professor Wandt is a practicing lawyer and is responsible for the program and certification of digital evidence resources and social media investigations for the Institute of the Certified Inspector General.