Wide Angle

Did True Crime Influencers Really Help Solve the Death of Gabby Petito?

Call true crime TikTok what it is: misinformation.

A magnifying glass next to a TikTok logo.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Over the past month, the disappearance and murder of 21-year-old van influencer Gabby Petito has gripped the internet. Across platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and TikTok, amatuer investgiators have parsed all availabledetails of the last few weeks of Petito’s life in an effort that can, most generously, be read as a grassroots effort to locate Petito. Least generously, those scrutinizing Petito’s last moments have come across as a voyeuristic attempt to gain notoriety from a tragedy.

One of those people is Haley Toumaian, a 24-year-old TikTok creator and aspiring true crime podcast host. In a single week, she gained nearly half a million followers for her beat-by-beat videos—over 50 of them— detailing every aspect of the Gabby Petito case. Sometimes these clips aggregated news from traditional outlets or FBI press conferences, but others have spun wild theories about the case, hedged by a broad disclaimer that these were just that: theories.

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The big question is whether this content does more harm than good or if creators are inherently just always caught in a game of clicks. ICYMI hosts Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher talked with Toumaian about the ethically murky space where true crime TikTok sits, the whiteness of the true crime genre, and about who ultimately “deserves” answers in a case like Petito’s.

A lightly edited and condensed transcript of the conversation is below. 

Madison Malone Kircher: How did you first learn about the Gabby Petito story?

Haley Toumaian: I follow a lot of different true crime accounts. People who cover true crime on Twitter and Instagram and YouTube. And I think I just saw a posting about it and clicked on a very preliminary article. As soon as I started reading about her, I saw a lot of myself in her. And so that just really struck a chord with me. And that’s when I decided to start posting about it.

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Rachelle Hampton: What parts of yourself?

Toumaian: We’re a similar age, we’re both YouTubers, we’re both engaged. I felt like I could’ve been friends with her if I lived near her. It really pulled at my heartstrings and just seeing that and hearing about her fiance not coming forward. That just hit me really hard.

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Hampton: So what inspired you to get involved as much as you did rather than just observing?

Toumaian: I have a true crime podcast so I do a lot of true crime research and every case that I cover that is open I always end up following the story very closely and sometimes sharing about it on my Instagram stories. In this particular case, I decided to just post one overview video about it on my TikTok page. I had about 170,000 followers at the time. But my TikTok page hadn’t really been doing that well, and I hadn’t been posting a ton on it. So I figured I’ll just post this video and it might reach a couple thousand people and you just never know what a difference it’ll make. Once that took off and a lot of people started commenting on it, that’s when I was like, wow, okay. I can actually make a difference here by continuing to post.

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Hampton: When did you post that first video? And then you said you had 170,000 followers then—how many do you have now?

Toumaian: So I posted it last Tuesday. At the time I had like just under 170,000. And as of a couple hours ago, when I last checked, I have about 600,000.

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Hampton: You said in a TikTok about Gabby’s last Instagram post that you don’t really want to speculate about things you don’t know are true, but you think it’s important to kind of share all the theories and information. And I’m curious as to how you vet what seems like a lot of information coming at you.

Toumaian: Yeah. I think for me mostly, if it’s something that is not confirmed, I make that very clear up front. So on that Instagram one, I said, this isn’t anything official. This is just me explaining what some people have said. And I also have tried to stay away from sharing my own opinion on different theories. On some of my live videos that I’ve done throughout the last week, people have asked me what I think happened and I’ve shared my opinion, but in the videos that live on my page, I’ve tried to not share that. And it definitely is very difficult to vet things. And sometimes people get upset at me for not posting a theory, but I really have tried to like, not post anything unless it is more or less confirmed. And if it is a theory, I make that very clear up front. Or if it is unconfirmed, I make that very clear up front, just so people aren’t going crazy and assuming everything I say is true.

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Malone Kircher: Does giving a disclaimer at the beginning of a video about say speculation on Gabby Petito’s last Instagram caption, does that make that video any less of a conspiracy theory?

Toumaian: No, it definitely doesn’t. I mean, all of this right now is a theory. I’m literally just trying to share what is being put out there, because like you said, there is so much information coming from so many places and it’s really hard to keep track of it all. So I understand why people need a place that kind of consolidates it.

Hampton: With such a fast moving case like this that’s playing out on social media, have you ever shared something that you realized later was wrong? And in that situation, what did you do?

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Toumaian: Yeah. So I think it was on Saturday the 18th, there were reports that in the area that they were searching for Brian, that there had been a body found and I was seeing a lot of those reports. And so I decided to post it with, again, that huge disclaimer. I said multiple times, it’s unconfirmed. I put it in big text and said, this is unconfirmed. This is something that is being reported. And immediately, as soon as the police came out and said, this is not true, I posted that it wasn’t true.

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Malone Kircher: Did you delete the false video?

Toumaian: I did not. What I did on the false video was I responded to a comment on it. And the reason that I decided to post that [false] video, I was very hesitant to post it. But at the same time, I wanted to get something out there for people who were following me and checking my page to have that information.

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Malone Kircher: Why not just take down the original video that had misinformation in it, once you realized it had misinformation? Because you know very well how the TikTok algorithm works. The juiciest stuff rises to the top and what’s extremely juicy is misinformation.

Toumaian: Well, it’s kind of two reasons. One, I didn’t explain in the second video exactly what the original thing was. And the main reason I didn’t explain it was because I didn’t have the time to sit down and talk about it. And I know trying to be an ethical person that I shouldn’t post stuff that I don’t know is true, but for myself, I did everything I could to make it clear that that first video was not true.

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Malone Kircher: But Haley, that’s not true. Everything you could do would’ve been taking down the first video with misinformation and stopping the spread of it once you knew it was misinformation.

Toumaian: Yeah, no, that is true. Honestly, by the time I was able to go back and check it, the second video had more views than the first one. I could see that on my page, it was the second video that was getting more traction. And so that made me feel a little bit better. And I honestly didn’t ever think about taking the first video down because I’ve just been trying to keep up. And like I said, I’m not trying to be an investigator in this at all. I’m just trying to be a source of information for people because there’s so much out there and it’s really hard to keep track of it.

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Hampton: I feel like it would be remiss not to talk about the downsides of true crime, and the ways in which it can sensationalize what is ultimately the worst day of somebody’s life. And so I’m curious, as the host of a true crime podcast, what you think of the criticism of true crime as a genre and the way it plays into supporting the police state or perpetuating white supremacy?

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Toumaian: I think there’s two different sides to true crime. There is the investigative journalism where people are actively working on investigations. So with that, I think of podcasts like Culpable and Up and Vanished that worked to get a case moved further along. On the other side of that, there’s the part of true crime that is storytelling. It’s about just explaining the stories that have happened to these victims. I think I kind of fall a little bit in the middle of it.  I’m not an investigative journalist and I don’t plan to be. I’m not trying to do the job of the detectives or find out information, but I want to be a source of information that could possibly help reach somebody that it may have not reached before.

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And I have seen countless comments on my videos about obviously the whiteness of the victim and of the community and what seems to be talked about more. I have seen countless requests to cover cases, missing people of color and indigenous women and things like that. As a white woman myself, I know that I am very privileged and very lucky, and I am constantly working to try to see the other side of that. And I have a lot of work to do. And I have told a lot of my followers that I’m going to try to focus on some of those other cases. And I definitely think that it is an issue in our society, just like it is in all of society. We’re not just seeing this in true crime, we’re seeing it everywhere.

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Hampton: Keeping that in mind, how do you decide which cases are worth your attention?

Toumaian: From where I’m sitting right now, I’m going to try to cover every single case that I can. Where I’m kind of planning to go right now once I start digging into other cases is  to look into people who have gone missing that are in some of these minority groups, because it’s not fair that they’re not being talked about as much as other cases. And then the other thing is just more recent cases. So for example, I’ve gotten a lot of requests for a case about Jelani Day who went missing in August. I haven’t looked into it fully, but I’ve just gotten a lot of requests about it. And that is going to be the first case that I focus on once I have time.

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The other most requested one is a five year old girl who went missing a couple months ago. And in that one, I believe she is white. And of course I do want to focus on other cases, but at the same time, I can’t discriminate either way. And it’s one that I’ve gotten a lot of requests about. And that’s the other thing like, because I’m getting so many requests, the ones that I see more are going to be the ones that stick in my mind, right? Because I’m seeing their names more.

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Malone Kircher: If the name of a five year old white child is the name that keeps popping up and sticking in your brain, that’s to the exclusion of any of the other cases of missing indigenous folks or people of color, you just mentioned wanting to cover.

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Toumaian: That is true. Honestly, the reason that the cases that are the most requested stick in my mind is because that is literally what I see the most in my comments. That’s not something I can change. I can only do my part to try to tackle the focus on white victims and I’m going to. Because now I have a following. I have people that are going to watch my videos. I can do my part to share, especially about indigenous women. That’s like a big one that really, it really hits me. I know that I am privileged and that I don’t know a lot about that. This is literally just the start of me diving into this. And I hope to be able to grow and learn and do as much as I personally can, but there is a limit to that at least where I’m at in my life right now.

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Malone Kircher: I hear you talking about Gabby’s case and Gabby’s family with a lot of empathy and you say you’re sharing the facts, but how do you justify that explanation when you’re posting videos with conspiracy theories, like how some people think she’s alive and in Puerto Rico?

Toumaian: I actually didn’t post about the Puerto Rico theory for quite some time, because it was one that I couldn’t wrap my head around. And then I said, “my theory is this.” People don’t have to believe me. I would hope that people are going to believe me.  I feel like as the week has gone on, I’ve learned a lot. I am trying to find where I sit in this space and on the ethical side. It’s challenging. I’m not going to lie.

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Hampton: One of the things we learn as journalists is  sometimes you’re going to fuck up. Do you have any regrets about anything you’ve posted in the past week?

Toumaian: I definitely do. I look back at some of my first videos and I was kind of just putting information out there because it was just getting started. The first video I postedgot a couple thousand views in the first couple hours. Then all of a sudden it blew up and I was busy working, I was preparing for a trip. At the beginning, I really was just trying to share, “Here’s what I’m hearing, here’s what I’m hearing,” but now I’m really trying to reel it in a little bit

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There’s probably always going to be misinformation that I’m sharing. Without me being a full on investigator, it’s almost inevitable if I want to be sharing things as they’re happening and as they’re unfolding. You can only confirm so much without being there, being an investigator. That’s not my goal.. My main goal is to get information out there so we can help find more people.

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Hampton: Knowing that you will probably end up spreading misinformation, how do you know you’re not doing more harm than good?

Toumaian: I would say, I don’t know that I’m not doing more harm than good. But seeing this TikTok community come together over the last week and just how many people cared about what was happening. Some of that is very selfish. People want answers. But seeing that and seeing people from all over the world, people from New Zealand are telling me that they’re reading or listening to my updates every day. I just saw how many people it could reach. All it takes is one person who saw something to say something.

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Malone Kircher: It’s a rush to post on social media. These apps are designed so that even when you’re posting with the best intentions, your brain is wired to feel good when those videos perform well. I think it’s really hard to divorce that from the very human elements here.

Toumaian: It’s very hard to separate out the need to have answers for yourself versus having answers for family. It’s a very human response to be happy when things go well in your life, but for me I am trying to not focus on that. I think anybody that’s on social media or doing a podcast or making a YouTube video … it is a little bit selfish, unfortunately. I’m not going to get somebody to pay me, I’ve had a couple people reach out saying “we want to sponsor your videos.” I don’t need to hold a water bottle in my video while I’m recording it and you pay me to post that video and even if it doesn’t affect my actual video that’s unethical to me. If I want to make this my full-time job, eventually I do need to make money from this type of thing, but my goal isn’t for me to profit. My goal is to help people. That’s why I started my true crime podcast in the first place and after this last week I’ve really shifted to “I just want to help people.”

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Hampton: Which is an admirable goal, but I’m curious as to what you would say to criticism that you’re not really helping people. Here’s a tweet that reads, “It’s really uncomfortable to see how this entire site is using the Gabby Petito situation to live out their true crime fantasies. Like there’s a real girl who’s missing, in danger or already dead, and they’re treating it like it’s a TV drama.”

Toumaian: Those kinds of things make me sick to my stomach. That’s why I was really trying to just focus on putting information out there. I cannot imagine being the family. All that I can do is share who they say Gabby was. That’s another reason why I want to focus on cases that are getting a lot of requests because there are family members who are requesting for me to talk about their family member that is missing.

To hear the rest of the episode—and make sure you never miss another—subscribe to ICYMI.

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