Encore: Did TikTok Find Gabby Petito, or Exploit Her?

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Rachel Hampton: Hi. I’m Rachel Hampton and you’re listening to issue I’m I in case you missed it please podcast the internet culture and I hope you all are having an amazing week. As we said on Wednesday, that is why my team is taking two whole weeks off the plants and bigger stuff down the road and to try and find a replacement for Madison Kershaw. It’s a it’s a hard task. So while we’re doing that, we wanted to share some of mine, Madison’s absolute favorite episodes.

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Rachel Hampton: Today we’re bringing you one of our more serious episodes. It’s all about how true crime to profiteer off the disappearance and eventual death of Gabby Petito, a woman traveling across the country with her boyfriend in a van. This episode originally aired on September 22nd, 2021, which means that, yes, you will hear Madison’s beloved voice once again in this episode. We had a pretty revealing discussion with one of the tech talkers who was making a name for themselves off of this woman’s tragedy. So without further ado, did Tik Tok buying Gabby Petito or exploiter?

Speaker 2: Today on the show, we’re going to be talking about true crime. Tick tock. 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 Tik-tok, 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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Rachel Hampton: 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.

Speaker 2: 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?

Rachel Hampton: We’re going to pose that question to an up and coming true crime talker who devoted herself to the story of Gabby Petito. She’s made more than 52 talks 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.

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Rachel Hampton: But first, we have to start with Gabby Petito.

Speaker 2: Just a little bit of very factual back story. Gabrielle Gabby Petito is a 22 year old who set out in a white Ford van in July with her boyfriend, a man named Bryan 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.

Rachel Hampton: Things take a turn for the worse on September 1st, when laundry returned home to Florida in the couple’s white van without Petito. Ten 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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Speaker 2: 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. No one took the van when headed to a hotel, and that was the end of the incident.

Rachel Hampton: 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.

Speaker 2: 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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Rachel Hampton: 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 to talk affectionately known to workers there as crime talk, you probably heard something more like this.

Speaker 2: 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.

Speaker 3: So last night I couldn’t get off Gabby Petito Instagram page and here’s why. So this was posted July 30th, and I don’t think Gabby posted it because this doesn’t.

Rachel Hampton: Well, something important to remember when listening to these tiktoks is that before her case blew up on the Internet, Gabby had about 1000 followers on Instagram, and she currently has around 800,000. 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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Speaker 2: How do videos like these even exist in the first place? Right. In theory. Wouldn’t wooden platforms want to shut this sort of thing down?

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Rachel Hampton: Well, on to crime to talk words like allegedly, reportedly and the phrase, in my opinion, do all of the heavy lifting. And by in.

Speaker 2: Your opinion, the heavy lift.

Rachel Hampton: Ad is that fact. Sorry. In my humble in my honest opinion, doing like £200 of deadlifting here. And those words are part of journalism 101. You’ll learn them and enjoy 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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Speaker 2: It’s those words, right, that provide cover to. What are essentially conspiracy theories. And those theories catch on like wildfire on Reddit, on Tik Tok on Instagram and in a case like Gabby’s.

Rachel Hampton: 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 parsing the lyrics for code like it’s a Taylor Swift album drop.

Speaker 2: The song that most people are focusing on is Matt 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.

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Speaker 4: So it’s just a little.

Speaker 2: People are a little like, What the heck? Why was that song added?

Rachel Hampton: Or looking at her hike 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’s 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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Speaker 4: The clip that you just saw was at 6 minutes and 40 seconds, and it was of Brian 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 alma, it’s legit.

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Speaker 2: So those are all, like we said, conspiracy theories. Well, we do actually know right now is that Brian Laundry 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 that DNA is not yet officially confirmed. And finally, that authorities are on the hunt for laundry in Florida. That is all we know.

Rachel Hampton: 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.

Speaker 2: 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.

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Speaker 4: 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 anybody can help, I know the FBI is looking for all the help they can get onto the case.

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Speaker 4: Welcome back to Red, White and Blue. Soon, this month.

Rachel Hampton: Another important tip also came from Tik Tok, 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.

Speaker 2: Rachel, I feel like you already know. What I’m about to say.

Rachel Hampton: Is a nuance.

Speaker 2: It is, in fact, that things can be two things at once. You know, it is a good thing that maybe this vanlife couple and this this, you know, woman on TikTok 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 ofis murder solving.

Rachel Hampton: 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 color lines for years.

Speaker 2: 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.

Rachel Hampton: And then deciding to post it online for again, my favorite word of this episode, dubious reasons.

Speaker 2: The comments 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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Rachel Hampton: But a social media algorithm doesn’t know or even care about that. Right. 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. Today.

Speaker 2: 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 okay 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.

Rachel Hampton: 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 that mainstream media and society and true crime tock is obsessed with covering missing or endangered white women while largely ignoring cases of missing people of color.

Rachel Hampton: Some true crime podcasts 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 podcasts kind of refused to interrogate until last summer. And if there is anything we should have learned 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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Speaker 2: 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 DM’s you may be considering sending.

Rachel Hampton: 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 nuanced, it falls into the very worst of true crimes habits.

Speaker 2: Something that really fascinates me about true crime talk is that a lot of it, or at least a portion of it, is just 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.

Rachel Hampton: Which 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 type 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.

Speaker 2: 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 tik tok 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 Haley Toumaian who posts under the name at Robin Haley. She’s made over 50 tiktoks about the case singing.

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Rachel Hampton: We’ll hear from Hailey herself after the break.

Speaker 4: She’ll sue. You should see you to confuse you. You lose, you could always.

Speaker 5: Be the best friend you.

Speaker 5: Hi.

Rachel Hampton: Hope you’re enjoying today’s show. This is your first time listening to I feel. Why have been. Welcome. We are so thrilled to have you here. In case you missed it, our show comes out twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You’re listening to Saturday’s episode. This past Wednesday’s was a revisit of our episode about the 500,000 word Harry Potter fanfic that took over the Internet. It’s one of my absolute favorite. You should definitely check it out. And we are back with Haley Toumaian, a 24 year old true crime podcaster who spent the last week embroiled in Gabby Petito Tik Tok.

Speaker 2: I’m going to give you a quick overview of the Gabby Petito case. This is her. She was 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, she also that was one of Haley Toumaian first tiktoks about Gabby Petito. She has since made more than 50 detailing almost every aspect of this case. 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, you know, 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.

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

Speaker 2: So I posted it this last Tuesday, so that would have been the 14th, I believe. At the time I had like just under 170,000. And as of a couple of hours ago, when I last checked, I have about 600,000.

Rachel Hampton: You said in a tik tok about Gabby’s last Instagram post that you don’t really want to speculate about things you don’t know her 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.

Speaker 2: 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 kind of unconfirmed, I make that very clear up front.

Rachel Hampton: With such a kind of fast moving case like this that’s like playing out on social media.

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Rachel Hampton: Have you ever shared something that you realized later was wrong? And in that situation, what do you kind of do?

Speaker 2: 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. Did you delete that, the false video?

Speaker 2: 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. Why not just take down the original video that had misinformation in it?

Speaker 2: 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. 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. But but but, Hailey, that’s not true. Everything you could do would have been taking down the first video with misinformation and stopping the spread of it.

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Speaker 2: Once you knew it was misinformation. 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.

Rachel Hampton: 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?

Speaker 2: 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.

Speaker 2: 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, you know, 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.

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Speaker 2: 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 that 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.

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

Speaker 2: 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 Day who went missing in August. I want to focus on cases that cover, you know, somebody from a 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.

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Speaker 2: Well, and 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. 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 thinking at all.

Speaker 2: Hailey, I hear you talking about Gabby’s case and Gabby’s 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 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.

Speaker 2: Right. 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 something’s my theory, that’s my opinion, that’s my theory.

Speaker 2: And I 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 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?

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Speaker 2: 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, you know, 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.

Speaker 2: 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 tech community. And I just wanted to do my part to help people get information.

Rachel Hampton: 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?

Speaker 2: I would say I don’t know that I’m 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 can reach. And all it takes is one person who saw something to say something. Sure. But let’s be honest.

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Speaker 2: Posting on social media and your your tiktoks are averaging what how many views would you say now? All I mean, over the last week, probably 500,000 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.

Speaker 2: 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.

Speaker 2: 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 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.

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Speaker 2: 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.

Speaker 2: 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. Hailee, thank you so much for taking the time today to answer all of our questions. We really appreciate it. Yeah, no problem. Thank you, guys.

Speaker 2: Oh. Okay. Rachel Wow. That was that was a conversation we just had.

Rachel Hampton: It was indeed a conversation.

Speaker 2: I think one of the key takeaways here is that these true crime tiktoks subreddits Instagram accounts, they are not going away.

Rachel Hampton: I mean, what could have been a learning moment seems to have largely convinced a large section of crime to talk 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.

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Speaker 2: 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 whose unfortunate death becomes a Gabby Petito story, we don’t know them either. You know, so much of true crime talk is just projection. How much of ourselves we see in a stranger on the Internet.

Rachel Hampton: We are owed answers. And I think so much of I mean, the most generous read of true crime to talk is that they’re 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.

Speaker 2: 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. Okay. That’s the show. We’ll be back in your feed 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 Isy. Why am I underscore pod or email us we are at why am I at slate.com? And we really do love hearing from you.

Rachel Hampton: Eye to eye. Miles, produced by Daniel Schrader, supervising producers Derek John Force Wickman and Alegria Frank are editors, and Alicia montgomery is executive producer of Slate Podcast. See online.

Speaker 2: Or not?

Rachel Hampton: No matter how many times crew try smart turkey. True charm. Yeah. I was like, what did I just say?