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Gabby Petito case: Could social media help find other missing people?

Posted at 2:01 PM, Sep 24, 2021

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 of possible interactions with the couple, screengrabs from YouTube that potentially showed Petito's white van, and social media users even matched up her videos and photos looking for 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.

So, what role can social media play in finding missing people?

Crowdsourcing information online is not new, from photos and videos of the Boston Marathon shared online in 2013 to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, where social media provided the FBI with more than 200,000 photos to help catch suspects.

But the Gabby Petito case 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," said Ráchael Powers, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida. "We also had that body-worn camera footage that added to that."

The couple's road trip from North Port, Florida, to New York through Colorado and Utah up to Wyoming made a lot of people along the way feel close to the case.

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.

There are also those that have been critical of the media attention the case has gotten. They argue that the case received more coverage because Petito was white, while missing people of color often don't get the same attention.

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.

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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. However, it can also be a breeding ground for false information."

"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," Powers said.

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, Kelly Rothwell, is a young woman who went missing from Indian Rocks Beach in 2011.

"Kelly Rothwell has been missing since March 12, 2011.," the post reads. "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."

According to the posting, Rothwell had plans to meet up with friends later that evening but never showed up. Her car was later found parked in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida. She has not had contact with anyone since that date.

Perry left for New York that same night and has refused to cooperate with law enforcement.

Powers said that had social media been more widespread in 2011, it could have aided in the search for Rothwell.

"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," she said.

"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.

For those wanting to help find others who are missing, the HCSO advises:

  1. If you see something unusual or suspicious, say something.
  2. Share information from legitimate news and law enforcement sources.
  3. Call the non-emergency line if you do have information, no matter how small it may seem.

Click here to visit an FBI page dedicated to people reported missing and or kidnapped.

This story was originally published by Stassy Olmos on Scripps station WFTS in Tampa.