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We may feel like we’re posting for Gabby, but are we just posting for ourselves?

In the month since 22-year-old Gabby Petito vanished on a road trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, her story has saturated the Internet. As investigators steadily released new information, the followers of Petito’s now-dormant Instagram ballooned from less than a thousand to more than 1 million. On TikTok, videos tagged #gabbypetito generated nearly 1 billion views. And when Petito’s body was found this week, demands of “Justice for Gabby” ricocheted around the Web.

All the attention may appear well-meaning, but something ugly happens when we turn murder into social media content.

From the early days of mass media, humans have devoured stories about crime. But our current true crime boom, amplified and accelerated by social networks, is something else entirely. The curious no longer need wait for the trickle of news reports or court appearances. Social media has made true crime participatory; you can, as everyone is so fond of saying these days, do your own research. But in most every instance, the “research” is more for our benefit than the victims’.

Because Laundrie and Petito, an aspiring influencer, lived so much of their lives online, there is abundant material to sift through. Consumers of contemporary true crime are overwhelmingly women, and it’s women — young women in particular — who made the case a trending topic.

The most avid #justiceforgabby TikTokkers are digital natives; they’ve spent their whole lives seeking secret clues in their crushes’ and frenemies’ posts, and now they can deploy those skills as amateur detectives, looking for signs of distress in Petito’s old photos, coded messages in her captions. Puffy eyes are evidence she spent the night crying; a misspelling means Laundrie had control of her phone and was posting as her; a stack of rocks is an omen, for unspecified reasons.

As someone who has spent many a late night on murder message boards, I understand the appeal. This DIY sleuthing feels like work, which is exactly the point. In the face of tragedy, passivity feels awful. It’s especially true if, as is the case for many women attracted to true crime, you see elements of your own trauma refracted in the headlines. It’s much better to imagine yourself as helpful, the one person whose midnight scrolling might crack the case. Combine that with a dwindling lack of faith in law enforcement, and you get an army of online detectives.

At their worst, crowdsourced investigations can get things very wrong. In the 1990s, the West Memphis Three — a trio of teenagers wrongfully convicted of the murder of three boys — became one of the first true-crime cases to have a dedicated website. In their eagerness to find the real culprit, amateurs converged on the wrong man, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. Years later, when Reddit tried to pin the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing, they ended up harassing the family of an innocent young man who had died by suicide.

But even when things don’t go so badly awry, all the sleuthing looks less like investigation and more like content creation. Posters delivered breathless updates on Petito’s case, as if they’re recounting plot twists from the latest prestige drama. An influencer couple who accidentally captured footage of Petito and Laundrie’s van posted a credit-claiming video titled “We found Gabby Petito’s Van!” — and drew 129,000 views. The drive for engagement drains the horror from the situation; newly created Instagram accounts shared information about the investigation in pastel colors and blocky, sans-serif fonts. Squint, and you could be looking at an ad for a direct-to-consumer furniture company.

Social media companies would like us to think that all problems can be solved by sufficient attention. Pour enough views, shares or likes at an issue, and ta-da! it’s solved. Because these platforms amplify popular content, all the incentives are to keep posting, at least until the next clicky topic surfaces, or the next woman who is pretty enough — and, typically, white enough — goes missing in mysterious circumstances. This is the rotten place that the true-crime economy’s intersection with social media has taken us: The vast majority of victims don’t merit any public attention at all. A few, such as Petito, attain trending status. Neither option sounds much like justice.

The more TikToks I watched about Petito, the more the real person at the heart of the case disappeared into the churning content around her. Her words have been picked apart, her life opened to scrutiny. She’s become flattened into a meme, inspiration for other people’s reaction videos.

As an aspiring influencer, Petito sought celebrity, or at least attention, and found only middling success. But in death, her brand has been transformed into something eminently consumable: murdered girl.

Rachel Monroe is the author of “Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession.”

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