The kidnapping and extraordinary rescue of Cleo Smith in Western Australia unfolded like a dramatic and ultimately heartwarming story of hard police work and a little girl returned to her family. For hundreds of thousands of social media users, however, his disappearance became something of a thriller in which they could play sleuth in real time.
Earlier this year, the case of 22-year-old American Gabby Petito went viral on social media. Her disappearance, the discovery of her body, the disappearance of her fiance, Brian Laundrie, and the discovery of her remains have been picked up, examined, repackaged and consumed as entertainment by millions of social media users across multiple channels.
On TikTok, psychics and tarot readers have said that they can sense not only that Petito was dead (before her body was found), but also how she was murdered. On YouTube, content creators made daily video updates on the case, and on Facebook, groups with tens of thousands of members, and in some cases hundreds of thousands, speculated and exchanged theories on what happened and who was responsible. Books about Petito are already available on Amazon and Etsy, people are selling “Gabby Petito” branded products and even items accusing the Laundrie family of being involved in Petito’s murder. Petito was an aspiring Instagram influencer during her lifetime, but her account gained over 1.2 million new followers after her death.
While attention to Cleo Smith’s case had not reached a climax surrounding Petito, the same dynamic was emerging. Several Facebook groups dedicated to the four-year-old girl have been created, one with over 60,000 members by the time she was found. On Twitter, harassment campaigns were launched against Cleo’s parents with accounts claiming the couple murdered their daughter and alleging they were also involved in other crimes. A TikTok tarot reader said that Cleo was dead, just like in the case of Petito.
In some cases, the same people were disseminating this misinformation. As fewer developments have occurred in the Petito case, the social media machine has sought new fuel. Posts on Cleo were shared on Petito’s Facebook groups, and influencers who had created a following talking about Petito incorporated updates on the Smith case.
Many have linked the treatment of real crimes by these online subcultures as a sort of hobby with the rise in popularity of the real crime entertainment genre, in which audiences are guided through the gory details of real crimes and often encouraged to think of themselves as detectives. But Petito’s case was an ongoing investigation, not a fancy Netflix docusery.
The intense and lustful interest in criminal cases is nothing new, but the role of social media platforms adds a new and powerful dynamic.
In the past, a disappearance or death may have only interested a local or national audience, but social media has erased any limits on who can engage in a case. A significant number of those who created content on Cleo were Americans. The people at the center of a case – investigators, families, witnesses and anyone who may be the subject of suspicion – are placed in the spotlight.
Algorithms help social media companies organize and amplify information to keep users on their platforms by providing them with content they are likely to engage with. When, on an experimental basis, I followed one of Gabby Petito’s biggest Facebook pages, Facebook immediately recommended that I follow several other Petito pages, the page for “Dog the Bounty Hunter”, pages for several. other missing women and a page for serious crime enthusiasts. The platform actively encourages users to delve deeper and deeper into such content.
Social media platforms use algorithms to increase the intensity of a conversation by amplifying the most engaging, often the most extreme, or the most inflammatory content. We’ve seen the impact this can have on conspiracy theory movements like QAnon, which (although it has many contributing factors) has been powerfully shaped by algorithmic amplification. When you take this dynamic and apply it to an ongoing criminal investigation, it’s likely that the more extreme theories about how the crime may have been committed and who might be responsible will gain traction.
Beyond the mechanics of social media platforms, there is the social dynamic within the “communities” that these processes have created. Many social media influencers have built an following around their Gabby Petito content. Nurturing that audience meant creating more content and competing with rivals to come up with the most engaging theories, information, and speculation about Petito’s death. It got more difficult as the Petito updates subsided, which likely led to some pivoting to Cleo Smith and missing Californian Heidi Planck.
Once social media communities have enough people invested to keep them going, they develop their own momentum. This seems to be happening in the community that started with the Petito affair.
While not all investigations receive such attention, when it does, it will likely affect how police, welfare agencies, and other parties approach the case.
Global harassment and abuse can create a need for additional support for family members or vicious speculated witnesses, such as Cleo Smith’s parents. Intense harassment and abuse from Brian Laundrie’s family included protesters camping out in front of their home and a woman with a megaphone yelling at them during the search and after her body was found. The parents said they would not have a funeral for their son, and police begged the protesters to return home and let the family cry in peace for at least one night. This highlights the threat to the mental health, well-being and reputation of anyone connected with the case.
In addition to mental health support, families may need hands-on assistance adjusting social media privacy settings and locking their digital fingerprints. Police officers can also become targets.
Dealing with the sheer volume of public denunciations and sifting through them for potentially useful information is likely to be a challenge for investigators. Another impact can occur when the police focus on a suspect but are unwilling to alert the person that they are under investigation. If the target’s name begins to appear on social media, or if sensitive information is published about investigators’ activities and movements, this could alert the suspect to destroy evidence or change their behavior.
Then there is the role of social media platforms. While speculation about criminal cases and disappearances is well within the bounds of free speech, it’s reasonable to question whether platforms should prevent their algorithms from leading users into ghoulish rabbit holes or amplifying unfounded speculation as to whether an individual can be a murderer to millions of people. around the world. It should be considered whether measures applied in other contexts, such as preventing relevant hashtags (or names of people) from trending and disabling recommendations for groups and related pages, should be implemented here.
At the heart of this phenomenon are real human tragedies. Transmuting the suffering of people like the Smith and Petito families into social media content for dissecting true crime lovers raises a series of practical questions, but it should also spark a more in-depth ethical conversation about the consumption of tragedy. as entertainment.