Did TikTok Find Gabby Petito, or Exploit Her?

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S1: So, no, I do not know Gabby, I have no connection to her or her family. But when I first heard about her case, it really stuck with me.

S2: Hi, I’m Madison Malone Kircher

S3: and I’m Rachel Hampton and you’re listening to isYou. Why am I

S2: in case you missed it?

S3: Slate’s podcast, The Internet Culture.

S2: We going to start off this episode with a correction. It’s very serious. Shout out to listener Marissa, who pointed out we were wrong in our last episode.

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S3: This has never happened before. We’ve never been wrong in my entire life.

S2: Not a day in my life, except last week when we said that the category of foods on Tumblr like, say, tide pods that one should never eat, even though they look like a delicious candy are called forbidden foods. That’s incorrect. They are, in fact, forbidden snacks.

S3: In my defense, Madison didn’t know at all, and I got exactly one half of no.

S2: So, so Rachel. So Rachel, this is about snack Tracy in journalism. I’ve been waiting to use

S1: that all day.

S3: I just can’t believe the way I’ve been attacked on

S2: this podcast over and over. It’s not going to stop.

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S3: It’s really not because today on the show, we’re talking about a side of TikTok that I cannot stand and you can’t either, Madison.

S2: That’s true today on the show, we’re going to be talking about true crime TikTok. Specifically, we’re going to be talking about the case of Gabby Petito, a van influencer whose disappearance and apparent death have grimly captivated audiences across TikTok, Reddit and Instagram. And in the process have inspired a legion of amateur true crime detectives to turn Gabby story. Into content,

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S3: no matter how many times true crime types say their content is about, quote unquote raising awareness or getting justice. It’s really hard not to question whether that can ever be entirely true in an industry where that awareness is inextricably linked to gaining views, likes and followers and eventually brand deals.

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S2: What you’re describing here, Rachel, is a trade off right? The idea that using social media, which is an inarguably useful search tool, is that there’s always a possibility that personal fame is actually what’s being gained in the process. You know, can clout chasing ever be a truly just act?

S3: We’re going to pose that question to an up and coming true crime TikTok, who devoted herself to the story of Gabby Petito. She’s made more than 50 TikToks about the case and gained over half a million followers in less than a week. But how much is she really helping here? That’s later in the show. But first, we have to start with Gabby Petito

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S2: just a little bit of very factual backstory. Gabrielle Gabby Petito is a 22 year old who set out in a white Ford van in July with her boyfriend, a man named Brian Laundry. They met in high school on Long Island, and the two had plans to see the country by Van, you know, hashtag Van Life. It was going to be a four month road trip of the American West. I’m picturing lots of pictures of rocks and arches, that sort of thing.

S3: Things take a turn for the worse on September 1st, when laundry returned home to Florida and the couple’s white van without Petito. 10 days later, her parents would report her missing officially. And during that time, the story of Gabby Petito disappearance and apparent death only grew darker.

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S2: In mid-August, officers in Moab, Utah, responded to a domestic problem between the couple. Footage from the cameras the police were wearing shows Gabby Petito sobbing and telling officers about her anxiety. Ultimately, the officers decided to separate the couple for the evening. You know, one took the van, one headed to a hotel, and that was the end of the incident.

S3: The last time Gabby’s family reportedly talked to her was around August 23rd, when she was leaving Utah and driving to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

S2: Her final Instagram post would come a few days later, a post that reads Happy Halloween with a caption of a fly and a pumpkin emoji.

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S3: So that is a brief and entirely factually driven recounting of the last few weeks in the Gabby Petito case. But if Iran true crime TikTok affectionately known to workers there as crime talk, you probably heard something more like this.

S2: So looking at Gabby’s last Instagram post, you can see how abnormal it is from the rest of her captions. Or maybe it sounded like this.

S1: So last night, I couldn’t get off Gabby Petito Instagram page, and here’s why.

S3: So this was posted July 30th,

S1: and I don’t think Gabby posted it because

S3: this doesn’t. Something important to remember when listening to these TikToks is that before her case blew up on the internet, Gabby had about a thousand followers on Instagram, and she currently has around 800000. So all of these kind of vague allusions to familiarity with Gabby’s writing style that’s all been gleaned over the past few weeks.

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S2: How do videos like these even exist in the first place, right? In theory, wooden wooden platforms want to shut this sort of thing down.

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S3: Well, on true crime TikTok words like allegedly reportedly and the phrase, in my opinion, do all of the heavy lifting and body.

S2: In your opinion, the

S3: heavy lift out is that fact. Sorry, in my humble and my honest opinion doing like 200 pounds of deadlifting here, and those words are part of Journalism 101. You’ll learn the M.J school, but on social media, it’s how the kind of morbid and kind of slimy subgenre of true crime remains squarely in the legal but dubiously ethical category.

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S2: It’s those words right that provide cover to what are essentially conspiracy theories, and those theories catch on like wildfire on Reddit, on TikTok, on Instagram, and in a case like Gabby is,

S3: this took the form of digging through old Instagram captions and comparing them to new ones, as you just heard, or finding her Spotify playlist and passing the lyrics for code like it’s a Taylor Swift. Album Drop,

S1: the song that most people are focusing on is not Berry’s woman, and I’m going to read you guys some of the lyrics, so it says she’ll soothe you, she’ll accuse you, she’ll confuse you, she’ll lose you, but always be the best friend you have in the world. So it’s just a little

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S2: people are a

S1: little like, what the heck? Why was that? Song added,

S3: or looking at her like tracking app and claiming she was in a whole other country or making again dubious connections between the recent deaths of a lesbian couple in the area around the same time as Gabby disappearance. People pretended to be Gabby online or watched old YouTube videos and analyzed the book that her fiance was reading to suggest that he had been planning to dispose of her body all along.

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S4: The clip that you just saw was at six minutes and 40 seconds. Then it was a brain reading a book, and it apparently is called The Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer about groups of people exploring uncharted terrain that go missing. This particular book in the series follows four women. What so many people have said that that needs to be information needs to be handed over to the police. I looked up this book to see if it’s legit. And my oh my pleasure.

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S2: So those are all, like we said, conspiracy theories. Well, we do actually know right now is that Brian Landry is a person of interest in the Gabby Petito case that a body appearing to fit Gabby’s description has been found in Wyoming, but the DNA is not yet officially confirmed. And finally, that authorities are on the hunt for Landry in Florida. That is all we know.

S3: And here’s where things get even messier that body appears to have been found, thanks at least in part, and I honestly want to say in small part to social media,

S2: there was a couple in the Grand Teton area around the same time as Gabby and Brian that had filmed footage of what appears to be the couple’s van. They sent that to the FBI and also later posted it on Tik Tok and YouTube. It’s kind of a surreal video. The first few minutes are very dramatic talking about, you know, the chills of having this footage, and then it just pivots to like a normal where a family who lives in a van. Watch our content. 14 minute saga

S5: kind of freaky for a late Saturday evening, but we just kind of had a brain fart. Oh my god, there’s that van. So if you get, anybody can help. I know the FBI is looking for all the help they can get on in the case.

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S4: Welcome back to Red, White and Blue Moon this month.

S3: Another important tip also came from TikTok. Someone who was hiking in Grand Teton reportedly picked up Brian Laundry while he was hitchhiking and later realized that he was a person of interest after seeing the Gabby Petito story go viral on social media. She contacted the authorities and then posted it on TikTok Rachelle.

S2: I feel like you already know what I’m about to say

S3: is a nuance.

S2: It is, in fact, that things can be two things at once. You know, it is a good thing that maybe this van life couple and this this, you know, woman on Tik Tok potentially helped assist authorities in finding this body. But that’s sort of the end of the positivity there, right? There’s no winner here. And crime talk almost game of eyes, murder solving

S3: and importantly, ignores the long history of people calling in anonymous tips about crimes that existed before the internet. I don’t know if anyone I mean not to go fictional. If anyone’s seen a single episode of Criminal Minds, you would know that the FBI has in fact been doing anonymous tip caller lines for years.

S2: But you know those anonymous tips? There are two points here to be scored for being helpful. You don’t you don’t get credit for doing what is what is the right thing

S3: and then deciding to post it online for again, my favorite word of this episode dubious reasons.

S2: The comment sections of those videos and Instagram posts and you know that the Reddit threads are just full of people saying that they are obsessed with this case, that the Netflix documentary is surely being dreamed up right now in some office somewhere that it’s a darkly fascinating story. And sadly, that’s all true. But it’s not a story, or at least not a fictional one, right? Like this is a family’s nightmare,

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S3: but a social media algorithm doesn’t know or even care about that. It knows is what compels views and clicks and shares, and what compels those things is gross content that spreads much faster and louder than content with perhaps more measured or well-meaning intentions. And this dynamic is never clearer than on crime thought.

S2: We’re not saying anything new here. The true crime industrial complex has been criticized over and over and over again for sensationalizing, you know, the worst moment in a family’s life for relying on and and basically saying like, we’re OK with police, which we’re skeptical of. Sorry. Well, welcome to the show. We are skeptical and that is putting it lightly. And then, of course, it’s also been criticized for the ways that whiteness and white supremacy are just you cannot experience the genre of true crime as it currently exists without confronting the way it prioritizes whiteness.

S3: I mean, it’s not a coincidence that the name of a young, attractive blonde woman is the one that everyone now knows. And that is not to diminish the tragedy that is Gabby Petito and her case. But there’s a whole term for this called missing white woman syndrome that was coined by the late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill around, I think, 2005, when the Natalee Holloway case was dominating the news. Missing white woman syndrome refers to the way the mainstream media and society and true crime. TikTok is obsessed with covering missing or endangered white women while largely ignoring cases of missing people of color. Some True Crime podcast faced a reckoning last summer after the murder of George Floyd once again exposed the deep inequities in the criminal justice system, a system that most true crime podcast can refuse to interrogate until last summer. And if there is anything we should have learned. And since last year is that maybe perhaps the policing methods that put people in prison should be abolished rather than celebrated.

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S2: And before you come into our mentions, murder is bad, don’t murder people. We know that that nuance you’re we’re assuming you are smarter than the DMs you may be considering sending.

S3: But the thing is that reckoning about true crime seems to have largely skipped right on by crime talk, which by platform design, a.k.a. short form content designed to get the most views rather than what is most nuance. It falls into the very worst of true crimes habits.

S2: Something that really fascinates me about true crime talk is that a lot of it, or at least a portion of it, is just re reporting news from police blotters and FBI press conferences and local news. It’s essentially news aggregation with absolutely no oversight, right? Like it’s it’s a it’s a mini media industry of people who often say like, you can’t trust everything. You’re in the media. Here’s me, I’m the new media, which

S3: is again fascinating because after last year, there was a similar reckoning within media about trusting initial police reports. And so all of the kind of introspection after the summer of 2020 just again seems to have completely skipped by on crime talk, who are taking police blotters and FBI press conferences and local news at their word, which I don’t know, man, there’s a long history about why we shouldn’t do that.

S2: I mean, I think that’s that’s where true crime comes from, right? This post serial economy we live in, where people often feel like the real story isn’t going to come from the media, but it’s going to come from, you know, and at home. Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys type who just wants the truth. One of the people that kept coming up in the Gabby Petito TikTok hashtag and also who my for you page just decided I simply needed to see over and over again is a woman, a 24 year old woman named Hayley Toumaian, who posts under the name at Robin Hayley. She’s made over 50 TikTok about the case thing, and

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S3: we’ll hear from Hayley herself after the break.

S6: She’ll. Chickens, you shouldn’t confuse you shillings, you could always be the best friend you.

S2: I just want to give a little hello and welcome to our new listeners, we’re so glad you’re here, and in case you missed it, our show comes out twice a week, so make sure to check us out on Saturday as well.

S3: And we are back with Hayley Toumaian, a 24 year old true crime podcaster who spent the last week embroiled in Gabby Petito TikTok.

S1: I’m going to give you a quick overview of the Gabby Petito case. This is her. She is 22 years old and she is missing. She was last seen in Salt Lake City, Utah, and her family has not heard from her verbally since August 25th on August 25th.

S2: She also that was one of Hayley Toumaian first TikTok about Gabby Petito. She has since made more than 50, detailing almost every aspect of this case.

S1: I follow a lot of different true crime accounts. You know, people who cover true true crime on Twitter and Instagram and YouTube and think I just saw a posting about it and clicked on a very preliminary article. And then as soon as I started reading about her, I saw a lot of myself in her. And so that just kind of like really struck a chord with me, and that’s when I decided to start posting about it.

S3: When did you post your first video about the Gabby Petito case and how have you seen your following grown since then?

S1: So posted it this last Tuesday. So that would have been the 14th, I believe. At the time, I had like just under one hundred and seventy thousand, and as of a couple of hours ago when I last checked, I have about six hundred thousand.

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S3: You said in a TikTok about Gabby 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 kind of vet what seems like a lot of information coming at you and just making sure not to spread misinformation. I mean, we’ve seen instances like the Boston Marathon bombing, where kind of amateur investigations have gone really, really badly.

S1: Yeah, I think for me, mostly if it’s something that is not confirmed, I make that very clear up front. So like on that Instagram, when I said, you know, 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. 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

S3: with such a kind of fast moving case like this. That’s like playing out on social media. Have you ever shared something that you realized later was wrong? And in that situation, what do you kind of do?

S1: 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, You know, 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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S2: Did you delete that? The false video?

S1: I did not. What I did on the false video the first video was I responded to a comment on it and the reason that I decided to post that video. I was very hesitant to post it. But at the same time, I wanted to to get something out there for people who were following me and checking my page to have that information.

S2: Why not just take down the original video that had misinformation in it once you realized it had misinformation, right? Because, you know, you know very well how the TikTok algorithm works, the juiciest stuff rises to the top, and what’s extremely juicy is misinformation.

S1: Well, it’s kind of two reasons. One I didn’t explain in the second video exactly what the original thing was. So part of it was that I didn’t explain it, 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 in, you know, for myself, I did my everything I could to make it clear that that first video was not true.

S2: But, but but Hayley, that’s not true. Everything you could do would have been taking down the first video with misinformation and stopping the spread of it. Once you knew it was misinformation.

S1: Yeah, no, that is true. Honestly, the by the time I was able to go back and check it, the second video had more views in the first one. 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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S3: I’m kind of curious, the host of a true crime podcast yourself what you think about the criticism of true crime as a genre and the way it plays into supporting the police state or perpetuating white supremacy?

S1: Yeah. So I think that I think there’s a couple of things. 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 Banished that worked to get a case moved further along. And then on the other side of that, there’s the part of true crime that is storytelling. And it’s it’s not about necessarily solving a case, it’s about just explaining the stories that have happened to these victims. And I think I kind of fall a little bit in the middle of it. And I have seen countless comments on my videos about the whiteness, like you said of the victim and of the community and what seems to be talked about more. I have seen countless requests to cover cases, you know, missing people of color and indigenous women and things like that. And that is something as as a white woman myself, like, I have a lot of work to do. And that is I have told a lot of my followers that I am going to try to focus on some of those other cases. I definitely think that it is an issue in our society, just like it is in all of society. It’s, you know, we’re not just seeing this in true crime, we’re seeing it everywhere.

S3: So I guess kind of keeping that in mind, how do you decide which cases are worth your attention?

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S1: Yeah. So I mean, from where I’m sitting right now, I’m going to try to cover every single case that I can. So, for example, there I’ve gotten a lot of requests for a case about Jelani De, who went missing in August. I want to focus on cases that cover, you know, somebody from the victim is from a minority group. And I want to focus on more recent cases. There’s another one that the other most requested one is a five year old girl who went missing a couple of months ago. And you know, 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 a more recent one, 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.

S2: In very morosely, most requested also probably means the most engaged. If you have this wide audience of people begging for this content, that’s the content they will watch.

S1: That is true. That’s not something that I I think about and not something that I’m like, Oh, this is going to make good content, so I’m going to know that’s not how I’m I’m thinking at all.

S2: Hayley. I hear you talking about Gabby case and Gabby family with a lot of like empathy. And then I hear where you’re coming from. But I’m just curious, you know, you say you’re you’re sharing the facts, but how do you how do you justify that explanation when you’re posting videos with conspiracy theories that Gabby Petito is, you know, some people think she’s alive and in Puerto Rico, right?

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S1: So for example, that that Puerto Rico theory, I actually didn’t post about that for quite some time because it was one that I I couldn’t wrap my head around. And then I said, my theory is this people don’t have to believe me. And I would hope that, you know, of course, people are going to believe me. And when I say some things, my theory, that’s my opinion. That’s my theory. And it’s a really hard balance for me. And I feel like as the week has gone on, I’ve learned a lot. And even as the last day has gone on, I’ve learned a lot and I am trying to find where I sit in this space and in the ethical side of it. And it’s it’s challenging. I’m not going to lie. It’s been it’s been very challenging and I feel like even in the last 24 hours, I’ve learned a lot.

S2: Hearing that response, I actually have a yes, no question. Then would you consider that Puerto Rico? VIDEO Given that you gave all of the necessary disclaimers and explained your process, would you consider that contributing to like the cacophony of misinformation that percolates on TikTok?

S1: I would, yes. Yeah, I’m I’m not saying in any way that I did not contribute to the misinformation because I posted videos that were later determined to be untrue. And my goal has never been to. I mean, obviously my goal has never been to spread misinformation. But at the same time, a lot of people have told me that they come to my page kind of as a safe space and as a place just to get the latest information. Knowing that things are going to change. I mean, things are literally changing. It feels like every hour still. And there’s only so much we can all share. And I think that’s why it’s so hard to find a lot of information in the news because, you know, credible news outlets are not going to share a lot of stuff that is not true. They’re, you know, they might share some things that are happening in real time. That might change, but they don’t share as much. And in this case, I mean, this case truly gripped at least a large part of the TikTok community. And I just wanted to do my part to help people get information.

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S3: I mean, knowing that mixed in with like good intentions that you will probably end up spreading misinformation. How do you know you’re not doing more harm than good?

S1: I would say, I don’t know that I’m not doing more harm than good. I think there’s always going to be negative impacts of sharing. True crime cases, it’s just inevitable and it’s inevitable in the community. But I just saw how how many people it could reach, and all it takes is one person who saw something to say something.

S2: Sure. But let’s be honest. Posting on social media and your your TikToks are averaging, what how many views would you say now?

S1: I mean, over the last week, probably 500000.

S2: And some of them have have millions, right? That’s not. Yeah, on the high, high end right. Like, it’s a rush to post on social media, right? Like these apps are designed that even when you’re like posting with the best intentions, like your brain is wired to feel good when those videos perform well. And so I think it’s really hard to divorce that from the very human elements here.

S1: Yeah, it certainly is. Just like I just said, it’s very hard to separate out the need to have answers for yourself versus having answers for the family. You know, we all we all wanted to know where like what happened and we still all want to know what happened. Yes, it does. You know, it’s a very human response to be happy when things do go well in your life. But for me, I am trying to not focus on that. Of course, it’s very difficult to block that out completely, like you said, to divorce that it is difficult. But I think anybody that’s on social media or doing a podcast or making a YouTube video, it is a little bit selfish. Unfortunately, you know, I’m not doing this. I’m not going to like, get somebody to pay me. I’ve had a couple of people reach out saying, We want to sponsor your videos. No, I don’t need you to to sponsor my video. 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. And, you know, if I want to make this my full time job, eventually I do need to make money from this type of thing. And but that’s not my my goal isn’t for me to profit or to, you know, get a lot of things out of doing this. My goal, as much as it can be as a human, is to help people. That’s that’s what I want to do. That’s why I started my True Crime podcast in the first place. And I’ve kind of after this last week have really shifted to I just want to help people. And I’ve had a lot of people come on and say, we want to continue sharing content that you put out about other missing persons. We want to continue helping and that’s all I ultimately want.

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S2: Hayley, thank you so much for taking the time today to answer all of our questions. We really appreciate it.

S1: Yeah, no problem. Thank you, guys.

S2: Oh, OK. Rachel, wow, that was that was a conversation, we just had

S3: it, it was indeed a conversation.

S2: I think one of the key takeaways here is that these true crime tech talks, subreddits, Instagram accounts, they are not going away.

S3: I mean, what could have been a learning moment seems to have largely convinced a large section of crime TikTok that they are in fact doing the right thing, or that there is a way to do this correctly when perhaps the question should be whether to do this at all. It felt almost like we were watching her develop a conscience in real time about the consequences of her actions over the past week.

S2: I think the thing we should remember and hopefully people in the true crime talk game will remember going forward is. You and I don’t know, Gabby Petito, we don’t know. Whoever, unfortunately, the next person who’s unfortunate death becomes a Gabby Petito story. We don’t know them either. You know so much if true crime talk is just projection. How much of ourselves we see in a stranger on the internet,

S3: we are owed answers. And I think so much of, I mean, the most generous read of true crime TikTok is that they are answering for a gap in policing and perhaps the resources and time they spend devoted to parsing over what song Gabby Petito is listening to on Spotify could instead be devoted to pushing police departments to actually solve violent crimes rather than spending all their time on broken windows policing.

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S2: I think that’s a really good place to end, Rachel. We don’t deserve answers to any of these stories. The only thing that is deserved is justice for someone like Gabby Petito. OK. That’s the show. We’ll be back on your feet on Saturday, so definitely subscribe. It’s free and the best way to make sure you never miss an episode and never miss a moment of me torturing Rachel with puns. Check out our show and some of your other slate favorites in our Stay Curious collection on Amazon Music. And also follow us on Twitter at I.C.. Why am I underscore Pod or email us? We are at ICI Miami at Slate.com and we really do love hearing from you.

S3: I see why I was produced by Daniel Schroeder, a supervising producer, Derek John Force Workman and Frank are editors, and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcast See Online or Not. No matter how many times crew try smart Turkey. True charm. Yeah, I was like, What did I just say?