Over the summer, Gabby Petito set off with her fiancé with a plan to travel around national parks across the western United States. Around the beginning of September, her social media posts stopped. By the 11th, her family reported her missing.
In the weeks that followed, online sleuths mobilized – aiming to get to the bottom of the case. TikTok videos dissecting her social media accounts topped over a billion views. A search for videos including her name on YouTube yields more than 25 million videos, a good deal of which deconstruct every element of her online presence. In the past week alone, a little over 100,000 tweets have mentioned Gabby Petito, averaging out at one every six seconds.
This is not the first time this has happened. In 2013, Elisa Lam checked into Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, disappearing a few days later. Within a week, internet sleuths were on the case, eventually falsely accusing death metal musician Pablo Vergara — who had stayed at the hotel almost a year prior — of murdering Lam. As a result, Vergara attempted suicide, checked into a psychiatric hospital, and quit making music. Almost a decade on, he still gets hate messages.
In the same year as Lam’s disappearance, Reddit issued a public apology for how its users had misidentified those involved in the Boston bombings, admitting it helped fuel “online witch hunts.” Sunil Tripathi, who had been missing a month prior to the attack, was falsely identified as one of the suspects. “On my personal cell phone I got 72 phone calls between 3 am and 4.30 in the morning,” his sister Sangeeta Tripathi later told the BBC. "We just really hope that [this] doesn't keep happening and that we are conscious of how powerful some of our platforms are.
If platforms want to prevent harmful misinformation, then they have a responsibility to help debunk harmful claims as well as prevent the spread of information during an open criminal case.
If social media platforms truly want to prevent the spread of harmful misinformation, they have a responsibility to help debunk harmful claims as well as prevent the spread of information during an open criminal case, or at least support those who are doing that work for free.
“TikTok has consistently proven it has a difficult time removing dangerous viral misinformation,” Abbie Richards, a TikTok creator and disinformation researcher, says. “While the platform appears to have the ability to boost specific videos, it hasn’t shown excitement over working with creators to fight misinformation.” This problem isn’t unique to TikTok. Earlier this year, it took YouTube hours to take action on a livestream of the Boulder shooting, despite the livestream revealing police locations, showing bodies of the victims, and allowing the comment section to devolve into conspiracy theories.
But the responsibility shouldn’t just be on platforms. We all, when sharing information about major news events, need to do better. During times of crisis, high emotions, bad actors, and people capitalizing on current events for clicks and views muddy the facts, and it’s our role as people online to help prevent that. “We have to make a cultural shift,” Richards said, “It might be time for us to discuss what we did, why we did it, how we did it and how we feel about it. Working through that will help us better combat our urges to turn into ‘internet detectives’ in times like these.”
This is where some will disagree, arguing that leads posted to social media actively help cases. That said, police forces, who have access to significantly more information, leads, and tools, don’t necessarily see it that way.
"You have to take the good with the bad; You might get a thousand completely insane pieces of information, but that one piece might be the missing piece to the puzzle," Josh Taylor, public information officer for North Port Police Department, told Buzzfeed News about the Gabby Petito case. “Why wouldn’t you just send that to us and say 'this might be helpful to our investigation' instead of giving a 14-minute commentary on [it]?”
During training courses about verification methods, we often task journalists with assessing recontextualized images that surface during major crises. During high-profile news events, journalists are told to ask themselves, “who is sharing this and why, when was it first posted, how can I verify this lead?” Often, a simple reverse image search can prove an image or video shared has been taken out of context and a lot of money has been put into free toolkits to help verify media content.
This is not about gatekeeping: we work alongside a number of amateur digital investigators for whom investigating online trails make up most of their free time. They do this responsibly by setting themselves certain standards, like avoiding publishing information about active cases or when it could hinder trials, checking if there is a clear public interest, being aware of laws and codes of ethics (especially in sexual assault cases or those involving minors), and not publishing information that cannot be unequivocally verified. In critical situations around open cases, they don't speculate online, they inform law enforcement.
It’s not uncommon for independent investigators to work in informal teams who will ask each other not “can you prove this?” but “can you prove this wrong?” to help eliminate any shadow of a doubt about a lead. It’s especially helpful to have checks and balances in place. Those sense-checking your investigations have to make sure they’re conducting critical peer reviews, not just offering undiscerning peer support. It used to be the case that only people with large platforms had to worry about this, but as platforms like TikTok now allow anyone to go viral it’s more important than ever to have a second pair of eyes on anything you publish, even if it’s just a tweet.
Once you’ve spent hours looking into a story, it can be difficult to admit it is a dud, but good colleagues don’t let you cling to bad leads.
Once you’ve spent hours looking into a story, it can be difficult to admit it is a dud, but good colleagues don’t let you cling to bad leads. As my coworker, Joe Ondrak notes, “It’s far easier to walk away from a day going nowhere when it still paid some rent.”
Regardless, to investigate thoroughly you have to allow yourself to be wrong, and the easiest and best way to check yourself is by having a network of critical peers to evaluate your work before making anything public.