Gabby Petito’s Death Has Become a Facebook ARG

Gabby Petito’s Death Has Become a Facebook ARG

Like many lesbians, I consume (probably) more than my share of “true crime” media. As a young girl, I grew up on Unsolved Mysteries, City Confidential and Forensic Files. Now, I listen to crime podcasts practically daily. So l, like many other people, became interested in the Gabby Petito case from the beginning.

Given the peculiars of the case — Gabby was still a missing person when I first heard about the situation — I quickly joined various Facebook groups, which sprung up just to keep up with the case. But the longer I stayed in these groups, and the longer the case went on as Brian Laundrie still remains a missing person, the more I realised that something strange was developing within the culture of these Facebook Groups: The mystery of Gabby Petito’s death was becoming a game to people.

These groups are littered with self-referential bingo cards, memes, photos of tall bald men with a marginal resemblance to Brian Laundrie being passed around as “joke” sightings. Incomprehensive attempts to diagnose both Gabby and Brian with various mental illnesses — many individuals swearing that Brian has narcissistic personality disorder and disassociative identity disorder, posts about Dog the Bounty Hunter’s credibility and the guesses of psychics being held up as high as the few available facts of the case. I’ve seen posts where people dug holes in their backyard to attempt to prove that Brian’s parents are hiding him under their flower garden, and posts from people who are convinced that Brian is the next Ted Bundy, busy on his serial killing spree even as I write this.

Alongside these jokes, ‘just my opinions’ and junk science, actual witnesses posted their testimonies in the group before going to the police. I saw posts from the individual who saw Gabby and Brian in a restaurant before the story being given to the authorities or released to the public. This suggests that people either assume that internet sleuthing is legitimate or, what I think is more likely, the possible attention gained from a connection to the case is just too alluring to ignore.

There are plenty of factors at play here. Barbara C. Sanchez wrote a comprehensive analysis on dark humour memes potentially leading to overall desensitisation (source). I would argue that the internet puts distance between the conversations people are having and the crime itself, which allows for wild speculation and the loss of the victim’s humanity and narrative in that speculation. Alongside this, the popularity of documentaries like Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer and the unignorable true-crime podcast boom has turned social media into a hive of hungry ‘expert’ WASPs happy to swarm the first exciting case dropped in their lap. And what it’s doing to Gabby Petito’s memory has become hard to stomach.

Buzzfeed recently published an article in which they interviewed Jessica Dean, whose little brother was a friend to those involved in the Slender Man case. She made comprehensive points about the fact that these social media investigative swarms become less about the victim and more about the ‘high’ that social media can bring the person who posts: “As soon as you’re the first person to bring up something that no one’s thought of or seen before, that is an immediate ticket to go viral. I think a lot of people are getting high off of that and are trying to capitalise off of that, whether or not they realise that. […] It’s OK to have your own personal theory on what you think might have happened, but to create your own insane theory as a ticket to go viral, it creates an absolute nightmare situation for a future courtroom”.

What’s happening in the Facebook groups, I think, has gone beyond a genuine attempt to help and beyond insensitive posts made with ‘going viral’ in mind. It’s beginning to feel less like people are invested in justice for Gabby’s family and more like people are treating this tragedy like an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) that they are all playing with a prize at the end. For those who aren’t aware, an ARG is an interactive fictional narrative that sometimes incorporates puzzles and mysteries and is presented in such a way (usually online) that it’s meant to appear like it’s happening in real-time or in our reality. (Famous examples include Ben Drowned and Marble Hornets).

In the past few weeks, leading up to the release of the coroner’s findings concerning the cause of death, I’ve seen daily posts from people demanding the FBI, the Petito family, the coroner, etc. — release more information about the case to the public. Now, posters are picking apart the particulars of strangulation in such clinical ways that the victim of violence is all but lost. And that’s both tragic for the Petito family and for what it might mean about the value of social media for spreading awareness of missing persons in the future.

There is a valid criticism that Gabby Petito’s case has gotten so much attention while the disappearances and murders of black and indigenous people continue to go unreported. But, at the same time, I think what the social media frenzy around the Petito case is bringing to light is that not all the attention this case receives is helpful, positive, or even about the victim of domestic violence at the center of it.

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