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From the file

True Crime: The tragedy of Gabby Petito | When Gabby Petito’s body is discovered, her case mobilises a whole army of digital detectives and citizen journalists

True Crime: The tragedy of Gabby Petito

True Crime: The tragedy of Gabby Petito

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When Gabby Petito is reported missing in Wyoming her disappearance is widely shared online. When her body is discovered her case seems to mobilise a whole army of digital detectives and citizen journalists all trying to solve the mystery of what happened


Transcript

Nicky Woolf, narrating: A quick heads-up before we get started. This episode contains strong language and themes of violence and abuse that some listeners might find disturbing.

Gabby: Gabby Petito never goes outside. 

Van Life Youtube video

Nicky, narrating: What do we want people to see, when we share our lives with strangers? What do we hope to see, when we follow a stranger’s life?

Gabby: Hello hello, and good morning! It is really nice and sunny today. It’s only 10 o’clock in the morning but it rained all afternoon yesterday.

Van Life Youtube video

Nicky, narrating: This video was uploaded on 19 August of this year. It’s titled Van Life: beginning our van life journey. 

Because of what happened, the video has a haunting, eerie quality.

Gabby: Me and Brian just got up and got ready. Made the bed in the tent. I think our plan for today is to just hang out here in the tent. Brian’s stretching, doing some morning yoga. I’m gonna make some yogurt.

Van Life Youtube video

Nicky, narrating: The woman whose voice you’re hearing – her name is Gabby Petito, and in the background you can also hear the voice of her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. You may have heard the names; maybe you’ve heard the story in passing, on the news, or on social media. 

Gabby: I love the van… 

Van Life Youtube video

Nicky, narrating: I’m not going to tease the story of this tragedy out. 

Gabby Petito was 22 and she never returned from this trip. 

On 1 September, Brian Laundrie took the van back to his parents’ house in Florida – alone. 

10 days later, on 11 September, Gabby Petito’s mother filed a missing person’s report.

Let’s take you to North Port Florida where officials are holding a press conference on the disappearance of Gabby Petito, who went missing on a cross country trip with her fiance. Let’s listen.

“So everybody stop scrolling and pay attention to this poster, there’s a missing person named Gabby Petito. This is breaking news all over the internet right now, that this girl Gabby Petito went on a road trip with her boyfriend and she has since gone missing, while he returned home alone.”

TikTok

Nicky, narrating: A few days after that, on 19 September,

“After weeks of searching for missing 22 year old Gabby Petito, grim news from the FBI.”

News clip 

Nicky, narrating: The FBI announced the discovery of human remains near Grand Teton national park in Wyoming.

“Earlier today human remains were discovered consistent with the description of Gabriele “Gabby” Petito.”

News clip

Nicky, narrating: Two days later: 

“News alert just in from the Teton county coroner in Wyoming confirming the body found in Grand Teton national park… is the 22 year old who went missing… is Gabby Petito.”

News clip

Nicky, narrating: The body is confirmed as Gabby Petito’s.

“And she was killed. Her death now ruled a homicide.”

News clip

Nicky, narrating: But that’s not where the story ends. 

Brian Laundrie has disappeared – presumed to be on the run from the police. And by the time I arrive in North Port, Florida, where he was last seen at his parents’ house, the police – and the FBI – aren’t the only ones chasing him.

Olivia Vitale: On August 30th, Gabby Petito sent her last text message to her mother, or was it her? The day before in Colter Bay, Wyoming, a woman named Miranda Baker and her boyfriend picked up Brian Laundrie who offered them $200 to take him to Jackson. When they kept going south, he became anxious.

Nicky, narrating: That’s not a traditional news report you’re hearing there. It’s from the social media site TikTok and it’s just one of thousands focusing on Gabby’s disappearance. The #gabbypetito has been shared million of times. Gabby’s story has led the news, but this hasn’t been just a reporter scrum. An army of digital detectives, citizen journalists, activists and influencers have become enmeshed with the story too.

These are pictures from his Instagram, they were posting all these photos together. This is them on their road trip. But then all the pictures after that are just him alone.

TikTok

Nicky, narrating: They share theories. They dig for clues. They’re curious. And they’re angry.

Protester: Say her name!

Protester: Gabby Petito.

Protester: Say her name!

Protester: Gabby Petito. 

Protester: Say her name! 

Protester: Gabby Petito. 

Protester: Gabby’s life mattered. Gabby’s life darn sure did matter. 

Protester: She was a beautiful young woman that had her whole life ahead of her and your brother snuffed it away. And you guys have helped cover it up. And help him escape. And you lied…

Nicky, narrating: People turn up outside Brian’s parents’ house. And his sister’s too. 

Cassie Laundrie: What do you want us to do? We cooperate with the police. We’re not supposed to talk to anybody and you’re making my children cry. 

Nicky, narrating: It’s become a circus.

Olivia: I do have to say that if you saw this body cam footage and you have ever been in an abusive relationship, it probably seemed all too familiar. This is reactive abuse, justice for Gabby Petito. 

Nicky, narrating: I’m Nicky Woolf and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast. This week the tragic death of a young woman in Wyoming, and the story of the digital circus that’s sprung up around her case – it’s a story that reveals how the lines between journalism and activism in the social media age have become blurred.

Palmer Haasch: So my name is Palmer Haasch, and I’m a digital culture reporter at Insider where I cover influencers, memes, TikTok, and essentially anything that’s happening on social media. 

Nicky: And so I wonder if you could sort of take us right back to the beginning of the, Gabby Petito story and kind of tell us how that played out, on which sort of social media. 

Palmer: So essentially the week prior to when Gabby Petito’s body was found and confirmed to belong to her, there was a lot of like bubbling discourse on social media and in TikTok in particular, which I think is where a lot of the attention sort of arose. 

However, as the algorithm on TikTok and the general interest in the case nationwide, and internationally as well, started to build, more and more people started to post and show interest and search videos about Petito. And from there, what started was really sort of sharing the missing posters, sharing the clothes she was last seen in, or things like that, really expanded to people, sharing very minute updates, any new news item about the case, and eventually figging into things like Petito’s Spotify, her YouTube videos, social media presence, body cam footage from police and eventually possible theories.

Nicky, narrating: Gabby Petito’s death was one of several horrific stories that played out this summer, including, here in the UK, the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan police officer. 

Gabby and Sarah’s stories share few similarities – except for the key one, of course: male violence perpetrated against women. But they both felt like watershed moments.

The statistics in the US are startling. In 2018 alone there were more than 19-hundred cases in which a woman was murdered by a man, the overwhelming majority by a man already known to the victim. And those are just the confirmed cases: many more missing women in the US are never found. 

Many of those are people of colour, and it hasn’t escaped notice by analysts of the fallout of Gabby’s story that the case that really caught fire this summer involved a photogenic white woman. But I don’t think that’s the only reason this case drew as much attention as it did.

Olivia: Nice to meet you, I’m Olivia. 

Nicky: Hi. Are we rolling?

Nicky, narrating: Brian Laundrie’s childhood home is a stucco-fronted yellow bungalow on a quiet suburban street. All of its windows are shuttered. Outside it, the street’s grass verges have been torn to mud by the wheels of TV trucks. 

Nicky: So, hey. I wondered if we could start, for kind of podcast-y stuff, if you could just sort of say hi, my name is, what you do, and what’s brought you here. 

Nicky: I meet 23-year-old Olivia Vitale, sat across the street from the Laundries’ shuttered front door where she’s sheltering under an umbrella against the relentless Florida sun, alongside a couple of grizzled snappers from the Daily Mail.

Olivia first heard about Gabby Petito on TikTok – Olivia is a rising star on there, with skywards of a million followers.

Olivia: So the police body cam footage that was taken two weeks prior to her missing was heartbreaking because I saw myself in her. And so many other people, especially women, we see ourselves in her.

Nicky, narrating: This is the video she’s talking about. It’s really, really tough to watch.

Police officer: You want to place your vehicle in the park and go ahead and turn it on park. Oh, okay. Turn off your engine. Go ahead and set your keys on the dashboard. All right. What’s your guy’s names?. 

Gabby: Gabby.

Brian: Brian. 

Police officer: Gabby? Brian? Okay. What’s going on? How come you’re crying?

Gabby: I’m crying because we’ve been fighting this morning. Some personal issues.

Brian: It was a long day, we were camping yesterday and camping and stuff. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I hit the bump there. 

Gabby: I was distracting him from driving. I’m sorry. 

Nicky, narrating: What you’re hearing is from a road stop in Moab in Utah, on August 12th. The man is Brian and the woman is Gabby. She’s clearly extremely distressed.

Police officer: So there’s two people that came to us and told us that they saw him hit you. There’s two people saying that they saw him punch you. Were just independent witnesses by moon flower. 

Gabby: Well to be honest I definitely hit him first.

Police officer: Where’d you hit him? 

Gabby: I slapped him first.

Police officer: You slapped him first?

Gabby: On is his face. He kept telling me to shut up. 

Police officer: How many times did you slap him? 

Gabby: A couple.

Police officer: And then what his reaction was to do what? He just grabbed you? Did he, did he hit you though? I mean, I mean, it’s okay if you’re saying you hit him and then I understand that he hit you, but we want to know the truth that he actually hit you.

Gabby: I guess, I guess. But I hit him first. Cause you know, 

Police officer: Where did he hit you? Don’t worry. Be honest. 

Gabby: He grabbed my face, it was like, like this. He didn’t hit me in the face or anything. 

Police officer: Did he slap your face or what? 

Gabby: He grabbed me with his nails. I definitely have a cut right here. I can feel it. It burns.

Nicky, narrating: It’s later suggested that the witness who called 911 reported seeing Brian hit Gabby. And if so, that seems to have been lost somewhere in the dispatch process. The officers on the scene are clueless.

Police officer: In no way, shape or form that I can perceive, does what happened here, a little slap fight between fiances who love each other, want to be together, can I perceive that this is going to digress into the situation where he’s going to be a battered man? Right? But then again, I don’t have a crystal ball.

Olivia: And that’s what makes this case, I think so big and viral because it’s relatable. We have that visual footage of her in distress with the dynamic of Brian Laundrie. Completely happy. He’s joking. He’s smiling. He’s literally making jokes with police officers. The dynamic where she is just distraught. And when you see that contrast, you know, there is something wrong. The red flags were everywhere and the police have received a lot of hate and I can understand, but I also think that maybe in those certain types of situations, police officers that are more trained in domestic abuse should have been a part of the situation when they should have brought someone in because the red flags were there.

Nicky, narrating: Olivia’s videos are slick and highly-produced; each one takes her hours to make. Despite part-time work in real estate as well as babysitting, she quickly became one of a constellation of social media stars following and documenting the Gabby Petito case.

Nicky: Did the fact that she was an aspiring creator kind of herself, you know, strike home to you as well? Do you identify with her? 

Olivia: Yeah, that is true. I do feel kind of connected to Gabby because of how she was documenting her life with videos and she was similar to my age, she was just a year younger than me. We have the same Zodiac signs. She’s a Pisces, Aries moon, same here. Favorite colour. Just little things like that, that people might think are nothing, but I’m just a very empathic person. So little details like that just can connect me to someone that I don’t even know or never met before. The thing is I did in the past date someone who was very narcissistic and I just felt so bad and heartbroken when I saw the body cam footage, because I know what she went through.

Nicky, narrating: Partly, it was just the sheer amount of material available. Gabby had been documenting her trip almost right up until her disappearance. There’s a tangible feeling when you watch her videos: somewhere in here, you find yourself thinking, there must be an answer. A key. A way to make what happened make sense.

Nicky: How do you conceive of your role? Are you sort of thinking of yourself in a kind of classically journalistic way or as part of a campaign or some kind of hybrid?

Olivia: I think a hybrid because a lot of people ask if I’m a reporter and no, I’m not a reporter. I don’t have the classifications to be a journalist. I never went to school or anything for that. But I would say a hybrid of both. Last night I was live on my TikTok and I had 5,000 people watching, which was a lot for me that never happened before. I was live at the Laundrie’s. And it’s more authentic that way. People see the news on CNN and Fox news and stuff. But when it’s through someone else’s phone and I’m standing literally in front of the Laundrie’s house, they feel like they’re actually there. So I am like the gateway. I provide that to people. 

Nicky, narrating: What drew me in to Gabby Petito’s story is this social media circus. How the manhunt, and the crime that preceded it, was being interrogated, re-told and re-packaged. How it’s being processed by the Narrative-Industrial Complex. And how it’s happening in real time.

Olivia: I guess what I am doing is a form of journalism, even though I don’t have the qualifications and do people really go to college for journalism nowadays? I feel like it’s kind of a dying breed. I’m the eyes and ears for the people. I like to kind of be behind the scenes, but I provide the visuals for people so they can feel like they’re a part of it. 

Nicky: The flip side to that though, is that there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that, right? That comes with both representing and giving the information to an audience. How much are you thinking about how to make sure that this is accurate and responsible? What’s the sort of process that goes into that?

Olivia: Yeah. So there is a responsibility that comes, especially having such a big platform that I have on TikTok. I want to make sure that I provide the right information and statistics, but also in a way I try not to make it opinionated towards me. I leave it. Open-ended where I kind of provide both sides of the story or what other people say. 

Nicky, narrating: Olivia says she has been targeted for abuse herself.

Olivia: I actually got a death threat last night. Some person was on Instagram, Dm’s me and said, they want to kill me. They’re going to find me and I block them. 

Nicky: Did you report that to the police or? 

Olivia: No, I didn’t. I just blocked them. It was some weird account. If it happens again, then I should probably do that, but I’ve always received hate on the internet even before I was covering the Gabby Petito case. I’ve always received that.

Nicky: And tell me if you don’t want to talk about this, but that’s a brave face to be putting on for something that’s really a brand new thing that people sort of didn’t have to go through in their brains before this technological era, right? Like when you take a step back and think about it and say, oh, well, I’ll check my phone, another death threat. That’s bananas. When you take a step back and think about it, right? I mean you’re 23 and recording for a signed up audience outside the house of a murder suspect and reporting on what you believe justice should be. A young girl has been murdered and you’re getting murder threats. That’s nuts. 

Olivia: Yeah, it is. It is nuts. But, as you said, the internet, it can be a very dark place and it’s so easy for people to say what they want because they’re hiding behind a screen.

Nicky: Everything’s just so immediate now. And there’s no filter between someone’s idle, nasty thought and the expression of that thought. As a creator, how do you, because for a reporter like me I’ve got the production company broadcasting institutionally who’ve got my back, who’s got your back?

Olivia: That’s a good question. There’s really no one behind my back. It’s just me thinking about it. There’s no institution. It’s just me and my phone. Me and this, that’s all I’ve got. I do have people that support me, that have reached out to me and they want to meet up and do events together or do something. So that’s nice. I see a lot of familiar people in my lives when I go live. It’s almost like I’m starting to make friends. I’ve made friends through the Gabby Petito case. It’s crazy. I have creators that I’m friends with. We help each other, which is nice.

Nicky, narrating: Olivia introduces me to one of them, Justin Shephard. He’s 39.

Justin: A lot of people think that it’s because she was a pretty young white girl. I personally don’t think that’s the case. I think that you have somebody who was trying to make her life social media. She was a creator herself and that was what was important to her. Because of everything that she had posted, you’re able to go in and pick apart things and start looking at things like, you know, their Spotify playlists, Instagram posts, their app trails, all of those things, people were able to kind of start looking at. And I think that made it accessible for the general public to try to get involved in this. And I think that when we’re going a little further than that, when Jim Buffoon of red, white and buffoon, found the van dash cam footage I feel like that directly led to them finding the body. I think that that made it even more, so like, look what social media has done as a complex.

Nicky, narrating: People love a puzzle, I say. 

Justin: Yeah. People do like a puzzle, even though it’s a tragic puzzle. But then I think too, it’s not like a situation where you don’t have a suspect. I know that technically he hasn’t been charged as a suspect, but I mean, I think the court of public opinion got on that one.

Nicky, narrating: The day I arrived in Florida, Justin had just organised for a crowd-funded banner to be towed round the sky above the Laundrie’s house saying “Justice for Gabby, TikTok Time’s Up”. 

Outside the Laundrie house, I meet Andra Griffin, a self-described “citizen journalist” who’s been following Gabby’s case every day since it first started to break at the beginning of September.

Right now she’s heading out to the Carlton Reserve, a 24,000-acre wetland a few miles away where investigators have been using sniffer dogs, trying to track Brian down – though, so far, unsuccessfully – and she invites me along.

Andra: I first heard about her going missing and her parents reaching out through social media. Just trying to find out, I believe that was 28 August, 29 August. So then when 1 September came around, you know, we heard through the grapevine that Brian Laundrie showed up to his parents’ house with the minivan. 

Nicky: And that was found by people on social media. That was discovered, right? 

Andra: Yes. Somebody let me know that it was here 1 September. And then of course we weren’t paying attention, we weren’t paying attention. And then I think it was around the 3 or the 4 September, and it was before the van was picked up, we didn’t come over here, we didn’t start documenting this until they started doing the search for him. But, about the third or the fourth, that’s when we realized that he actually came back without her. I thought that she was already dead. I myself have been a victim of domestic violence. So I know that progression. When I saw her and I saw how she was almost defending him, trying to take the blame for the altercation that took place, I knew that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes than many people do. People that have never been abused before in their life have had no clue.

Nicky, narrating: She decided to get personally involved, along with an old friend of hers, a citizen journalist and activist called Jonathan.

Andra: Him and I had decided that we were going to start protesting in front of the Laundrie home. And we were going to try to pressure them and shake them and get them to crack under pressure and start speaking because they lawyered up. 

Nicky, narrating: Andra is no stranger to protesting and campaigning. But she’s getting scoops too – details of the case that might never have seen the light of day.

Andra: Here, we saw the raid, we documented the raid, here with the FBI. And then they picked up the Carlton reserve. They started doing the search out in the Carlton reserve. So we were camped out there for days, just documenting that. And then when we started realizing that these parents were lying, it got us really angry, and so we started coming out here pressuring, you know, family to try to do the right thing. We started out trying to plead to them.

Nicky, narrating: I’ll be honest: I find Andra a little frightening. She was nothing but kind to me, but still – I wouldn’t want to cross her.

Nicky: So citizen journalists, as you said, sort of tell me about that because it sort of also sounds like you’re citizen FBI, police and prosecutor too. 

Andra: Yeah. So I’ve been documenting a few things over the last year, you know, over the last couple of years, primarily, masks and vaccines, you know, I’m an activist as well. And this murder mystery so to speak is the first one I’ve ever done. 

Julia: I think that the size of the community that can be engaged in a particular crime has grown to a global scale through things like TikTok, and ultimately you’re sharing with complete strangers on the other side of the planet, your ideas about a particular case. Whether it’s ongoing or it’s in the past. But the desire to talk about crimes that have happened or crimes that you think might be happening or the whodunnit piece of things, I think that’s been a human desire since we’ve lived in communities. So I think that that is something we’ve always done.

Nicky, narrating: This is Dr. Shaw.

Julia: I’m Dr. Julia Shaw, a criminal psychologist and the co-host of bad people on BBC Sounds.

Nicky, narrating: Julia says that there has always been a fascination with what she calls the “carnival” of crime. It’s nothing new to social media.

Julia: And in some ways it’s a sort of evolutionarily adaptive thing to do is to try and figure out what happened here and to try collectively, to use your brain power, to both identify potential threats, so a person, potentially, who is a threat to the group or people, and to stop it from happening again, or to continue happening. So I think that that’s where there’s sort of a strength in numbers as well, that can come from that. 

Nicky, narrating: It’s the potential scale of social media, though – the sheer number of people – that’s different. And that leads to a whole new set of potential bad outcomes.

Julia: Of course it can also lead to conspiracy theories. It can also lead to misinformation. It can also lead to all kinds of weird interactions potentially also with victims, families.

Nicky, narrating: Julia says what struck her reading about Gabby’s case wasn’t the details of the crime itself, but the way the community had built this whole relationship with the victim – Andra and Olivia and many others who saw themselves and their own experience so vividly in what happened to Gabby Petito.

Julia: I think when something like this happens and it’s someone, as you said, who we know or we think we know, it’s called a parasocial relationship when we think we have a relationship with someone through digital means or through TV. So that’s when it feels like we know the person, it feels like they’re a friend. And I think that that just massively increases our desire to help and, you know, engage with things that happened to that kind of person.

So a crime that happens to a YouTuber is something that feels very different than something that happens to someone who has a more private life. And I think there’s something that bothers me about that.

Protester: What are you trying to hide now? Now you want to stay silent? 

Nicky, narrating: Andra and a few others started protesting at Brian Laundrie’s sister Cassie’s house, too. 

Protester: You didn’t help Gabby’s family when they were missing. You didn’t help Gabby’s family when they were missing.

Nicky, narrating: And on 4 October, Cassie broke. Olivia caught the whole thing on camera. As the protestors forced Cassie and her husband to emerge from their house and answer questions on the front lawn.

Cassie: I’m not going to talk to you if you’re going to be mean. We have fully cooperated with the police since 11 September. I did not say that I saw my brother. I said I haven’t been able to speak to him in reference to the time when I was called by the police. Since that point, I haven’t been able to speak to my brother. I have been honest.

Protestor: What happened? 

Cassie: I don’t know what’s happened. 

Protestor: Based on all the stuff on the internet, do you think Brian killed Gabby? 

Cassie: I don’t know. The internet is the internet. 

Andra: I don’t believe she was totally truthful with us, but I do believe she was truthful enough for us to back off. You know, we really don’t see her being the mastermind of disposal of evidence and, you know, helping him get away or anything like that. I do believe she knew more. She knew he was in trouble. 

Nicky: When, when we say citizen journalist and we talk about the kind of influencer culture, is this like a new type of thing? What would we recognize as journalism here and what would we recognize as activism?

Palmer: Yeah, I think it’s a really difficult line, particularly on social media, especially because you know, a lot of people that are like disseminating information or disseminating news on TikTok are sourcing from news outlets, major news outlets. And so what is journalism? What do we qualify as journalism? Are you doing original reporting? Are you sharing verified information? And that sort of thing. And I think that’s where some of the lines kind of blurred on social media, because you had people sharing information, some of which may have been verified, some of which they would demarcate and say, this is unverified information, but maybe it’s useful so I’m going to share it anyways. Right? And it’s kind of a hard line to make because on social media, you know if you don’t have the backing of like a news institution that has certain policies, about fact checking and verifying information and, you know, signing authorities citing other witnesses, things like that you can’t always be sure like the validity of the information that you’re consuming.

There’s an ethos that any information whatsoever is helpful, which misinformation researchers and experts have pretty much said that’s not the case. You know, if you’re sharing unverified information, regardless of your reach, you know, that could potentially spread far and muddy the waters further. You know, you had theories about Petito’s Spotify, you had theories about Laundrie’s location. That misinformation researchers say you essentially shouldn’t be muddying in an open investigation like this.

Nicky: Do you think it’s inevitable as this ecosystem matures that we’re not going to be able to escape journalism conceptually being influencer-dom or a different kind of influence-dom, right? That it’s just influencer entities with certain levels of trust and that’s sort of all that can be. 

Palmer: Yeah, I think that’s a question that I think about a lot. I think journalism really is turning to this sort of creator model. And if you look at places like Substack as well, you see people getting these sorts of advances to launch newsletters and be incentivised to monetise their content, strikeout individually in that sort of way. And so I think the journalist as creator, journalist as influencer thing, is only going to become more and more and more pervasive as your personal reputation and the level of reach and the level of clout that you have and authority in a certain space.

Nicky: And that’s kind of an inhuman relentlessness to the internet’s attention. I was thinking this when I was talking to people outside the Laundrie’s home and it seems overwhelmingly the likely case that their son committed this heinous crime and unclear to me what level of knowledge or not the parents have. And that obviously that’s the law enforcement process to go through. But the flip side, like I was watching these guys, they flew a drone over their house, they were recording them in the garden, they’re being filmed taking out the trash, they’re being shouted at, they’re paying for airplanes to fly banners around the place. And it’s a difficult tight rope to walk. 

Palmer: I think it’s so hard because once something becomes so extremely viral, you know, I do think it has a dehumanizing sort of effect, especially when you get into this sort of theorising, it becomes more spectacle than, you know, like a real human story and a real tragedy. 

Nicky, narrating: Brian Laundrie hasn’t been formally charged with Gabby Petito’s murder, but there isn’t much doubt in Olivia’s mind, or in her videos, about his guilt. Likewise Andra and Justin. Still, I want to ignore the urge to give a lecture on media ethics. The tabloid photographers outside aren’t waiting until he’s been given a jury trial before coming to their conclusion. And, if I give my honest appraisal of the information currently available, neither am I.

Nor can I find it in myself to say with a straight face that traditional journalism would – or even should – stay out of the way of the authorities so that they can fully ‘do their jobs’ and investigate unimpeded. Because, I mean, some of this stuff might not have surfaced at all if not for the digital detective work. Take the dashcam footage that was circulated online – it showed Gabby’s white van on a deserted track, and almost certainly led to her body being found more quickly. 

And on a more fundamental level, isn’t it a healthy instinct for a reporter to not trust the authorities, anyway?

I want to talk some of this through with Olivia.

Nicky: The other thing often not aligned, that old school news organisations walk particularly carefully, it’s an ongoing police investigation, right. In an ideal world, what we’d like to think is that the police will get on with it and find the truth. And then the truth will be proven in a classical trial. And give them that as a starting point that, you can see how people would say jumping to conclusions, before that process has had a chance to run through could be actively damaging, The flip side to that is, and I’m talking as well about the, I don’t know if you followed the Sarah Everard case in the UK, where a woman was murdered by an off duty police officer. Certainly in the US as well, the authorities haven’t earned that trust necessarily. Then again, neither has certain parts of the media. Do you see your relationship with the law enforcement and with the investigation as pushing them to do it right or doing it right in a way that they don’t seem to have earned the trust that they’ll be able to just be left alone to get on with it? What do you think? 

Olivia: What do I think? I think. Police enforcement are certainly not trusted. I feel like there is no trust. And that was about a year ago during the whole George Floyd thing and the protesting and all that, that broke a lot of people’s trust And then this with the Gabby Petito case. And I feel like that loss of trust has kind of trickled into it as well. I haven’t really dove into the North Port Police Department and stuff. I’ve heard good things. I’ve heard, not so good things. I think they could be doing better, but again, I don’t want to receive hate cause I know people love their police department and I respect that, but I did see a video of a man named Doug and he actually saw Gabby’s van parked near the reserve. And this happened a day or two before Brian went missing. Brian had her van parked in the woods and he was there for a little bit doing something. And this man who was driving to work saw it. And he did a video of him going back to the scene of where it happened and apparently police haven’t even begun to go and check that location. You would think that should be very important. There could be evidence that was left behind. I was reading the YouTube comments and people are saying the police department haven’t even checked yet. So that’s a little bit of a problem. So that’s why I would say there’s so many people on TikTok, we’re like our own detectives, we’re doing our own investigation. Because we see things that maybe the FBI haven’t even seen.

Nicky, narrating: A lot of what Olivia is describing doing simply is journalism, in a way I find quite encouraging. The human instinct to solve puzzles, right wrongs, solve mysteries is the journalistic impulse. And she takes her responsibility to her audience seriously. 

But still. An audience that big must have an effect on a person.

Olivia: It’s all about the algorithm, the algorithm on TikTok. Like I gained 30,000 followers last night, just overnight. And on Instagram, that would be so hard. I don’t even know how that would happen, but TikTok, it’s the algorithm, the way they designed it. It’s easy to get followers. 

Nicky: Is it just as easy to lose them? Is it kind of an ephemeral thing? 

Olivia: Yeah. And if you don’t post for a while, like, I’ll look at my followers, it’ll go down by the hundreds each day. So when you have a lot of followers, there is that fluctuation and that’s true for all creators that have a lot of followers. That happens. So I do feel that pressure to keep up. So I have to post at least once a day, I used to post once every three days or four days, but now I try to do it twice a day. 

Nicky, narrating: Olivia is in a complicated position. If you squint, you can see what’s happening here as a democratisation of power away from journalistic gatekeepers and elites. But if you close the other eye, you can just as easily see mob justice. 

The situation outside the Laundrie house has a little bit of both of those things. The line is blurry. There are no easy answers. And we’d better get used to it, because this is the news ecosystem we’ve got, now.

Nicky: Does it sometimes worry you how much people hate the Laundrie’s? How much can you keep that anger under control?

Like say, someone who was following you on TikTok decided to take matters into their own hands, this is Floriday, everyone’s got a gun to that. Does that thought worry you?

Olivia: I do think about that sometimes. There are a lot of crazy people and we’re in Florida. I mean, Florida is like the craziest state in America. Yes, I do think about that, that someone could literally open fire on the Laundrie’s if they wanted to, but it hasn’t happened so far and nothing too crazy – I think all they’ve had is people knock on their door.

Thanks for listening. This story was written and reported by me, Nicky Woolf, and produced by Katie Gunning. Sound design is by Tom Burchell.