How Gabby Petito’s killing and Brian Laundrie’s disappearance went viral on social media

A missing poster for Gabby Petito
A Suffolk County Police Department missing person poster for Gabby Petito in Jackson, Wyoming. AP Photo/Amber Baesler
  • News about 22-year-old Gabby Petito’s disappearance and death spread over social media.
  • Her body was found in Wyoming nearly two weeks after she was reported missing.
  • Posts trying to decipher her case have pulled in millions of views.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The case of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old who was found dead in Wyoming on Tuesday after traveling in a van with her fiancé, has gripped the nation.

The #gabbypetito hashtag trended on Twitter over the last week while the same hashtag on TikTok has 959 million views and over 12,000 posts on Instagram. There’s also a Reddit page dedicated to chronicling news of the case and a constant influx of media coverage.

Insider tracked the online conversation surrounding Petito’s disappearance, which was ruled a homicide by the FBI on Tuesday, to create a timeline of how the case unfolded in the public eye.

September 12: A nonprofit shared the missing-persons poster

Nicole Schmidt, Petito’s mother, reported her daughter missing on September 11.

The next day, September 12, the Aware Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2016 that raises awareness about missing persons, posted about Petito’s disappearance. That day, there were fewer than a dozen tweets mentioning Petito’s name.

Aware’s Facebook post, shared with 100,000 followers, included a missing-persons poster saying that Petito was last seen in Grand Teton, Wyoming, in a white 2012 Ford transit van. The post has since been deleted from their Facebook page, though its history is cached on Google.

Aware’s founder, Kenneth Jarels, told Insider that Petito’s family contacted the organization and shared the original flyer, which he said was viewed “over two million times” on their Facebook. It was removed and replaced with an updated version after “her remains had been located,” Jarels said.

September 13: The news gained traction and a subreddit was created

Social-media posts about Petito followed national news coverage on September 13. (Insider first covered the story on September 14.)

R/GabbyPetito, a subreddit where Reddit users discuss and theorize about the case, was created on September 13. The forum now has over 120,000 members.

The #gabbypetito hashtag had more associated tweets as search interest also increased, according to Google Trends data.

September 14: Brian Laundrie’s statement is released

Laundrie’s lawyer issued a statement to the press on September 14 that his client had “no further comment.”

People shared news articles and the Aware Foundation’s missing person’s poster on Twitter.

Chatter increased on Twitter and other platforms once the news spread.

The same day, TikTok user Paris Campbell posted a video containing the missing person’s poster, pulling in over 400,000 views.

September 15: Search interest tripled after Florida police labeled Petito’s fiancé a ‘person of interest’

On September 15, Florida police labeled Laundrie as a “person of interest” in the investigation.

Search interest nearly tripled from the previous day, according to Google Trends. Hundreds of tweets and TikTok videos were shared, dissecting news about her disappearance. On Twitter, accounts with only a few followers were pulling in thousands of likes asking about Petito.

Accounts like TikToker @RobandHaley reached millions of people with videos about Petito and Laundrie.

Users on social media tried to assemble what they believed to be clues, combing through Petito and Laundrie’s social media accounts.

September 21: Petito’s death was ruled a homicide

The story hit its most-searched point on Tuesday, September 21, according to Google Trends, after the disappearance became a criminal investigation and a body found in Wyoming was confirmed to be Petito. Her death was ruled a homicide by the FBI on Tuesday.

By Friday, the hashtag #gabbypetito had nearly 1 billion views on TikTok. Her name continued trending on Twitter and Facebook throughout the week.

Read more stories from Insider’s Digital Culture desk.