The mysterious disappearance and death of “van-lifer” Gabby Petito has garnered an outsized amount of media attention, which has itself generated its own intense debate.
Petito, 22, was strangled to death while road tripping across the U.S. with her 23-year-old fiancé, Brian Laundrie. After returning to Florida on Sept. 1 without Petito, Laundrie himself went missing shortly after being named a person of interest in the case. He has thus far not been charged with Petito’s murder but is facing a fraud charge for allegedly using her debit card following her death.
Last month, the Teton County Search and Rescue squad credited “widespread news coverage of the Gabby Petito search” for leading to “at least two members of the public calling local authorities... with new information” about missing Texas man Robert “Bob” Lowery, whose body was found during the search for Petito in western Wyoming.
Others have rightly argued that major news outlets tend not to devote anywhere near the same amount of coverage to the hundreds of Native American and Black women who vanish under suspicious circumstances. “The Petito family certainly deserve answers and justice,” MSNBC host Joy Reid said on her show. “But the way this story has captivated the nation has many wondering, why not the same media attention when people of color go missing?”
But perhaps nowhere are emotions running hotter than on Reddit, where a 150,000-strong subgroup of alarmingly devoted Petito-watchers has been torn asunder by the introduction last week of a series of cartoon badges—or “community awards,” as Reddit calls its official version—meant to recognize the actions or contributions of others. (There are countless numbers of online forums devoted to Gabby Petito and her murder, many with amateur sleuths attempting to crowdsource a solution to the case.)
On the subreddit r/GabbyPetito, the “Free Spirit Award,” for example, is an illustration of a black-and-pink heart that should be used “When you feel like applauding somebody for being refreshingly original and very cool,” the moderators wrote in a post introducing the initiative. The “Kind Heart Award,” which bore a rendering of a mural in front of which Petito was once photographed, is meant “For those comments that ooze the Golden Rule, Common Sense, and Mutual Respect,” the mods explained. Another, the “Road Trippin’” award, is “for cool things. Like road trips, van life, skateboarding, traveling, and whatever else you just think is awesome. (Could possibly be used if you think somebody is just Trippin' in general—up to you).”
In the face of immediate outrage (and no shortage of mockery) for what many commenters deemed not only “tasteless” but “cringe-inducing,” the moderators of r/GabbyPetito were forced to remove the desperately cheesy content after just 10 hours, according to the Daily Dot. They later issued a formal mea culpa and stepped down as the forum’s mods, apologizing for the awards’ “inappropriateness & distress caused” by their “error in judgement.”
“Please know that an in depth conversation will be held between all mods to discuss how this has occurred and rectify as best as we can,” the post read. “Please do not take our silence as lack of action or answers. We appreciate those that have given us the opportunity to correct this error & your support as always. The purpose of our sub is & will continue to be to monitor and discuss the journey toward justice for Gabby Petito.”
In their lengthy statement, the sub’s moderators denied they intended to make any money from the awards scheme, and offered an exhaustive, point-by-point explanation for everything they said occurred.
“Lol what the hell is this and why so detailed,” one commenter responded.
“Dude……… go read a book or go drink a fucking beer. What the hell is with you people,” wrote another.
“This is so extra, you’ve already apologized just move on,” said a third.
“I still have no idea why there are even ‘awards’ for what a person writes to begin with....are we all in pee wee baseball and need participation awards for our soapbox rants???” wrote someone with the username “jimbobbudha7.”
Perhaps the r/GabbyPetito “Let It Be Award” would be most appropriate in this instance. As the moderators explained at the rollout, “This is a very special award. Letting go can be a beautiful thing. Arguments, bad habits, typos, negativity, rude comments, you name it; it’s amazing to let go and just BE HAPPY. You’ll know when to use it.”