In darker corners of the internet, Brian Laundrie is a victim of domestic violence, a symbol of bias against men when it comes to abuse accusations from women, and a poster boy for how bald men are treated as second-class citizens.
And to those in the QAnon set, the 23-year-old person of interest in the death of Gabby Petito is merely the fall guy in a vast conspiracy meant to distract from criticism over President Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
A site in the Reddit underworld, r/FriendsofBrian, is attracting trolls, Petito supporters, and men’s rights adherents. “Is Brian not attractive enough for gabby cultist (observation),” read one headline from an apparent edgelord. The post continued, “One has to wonder if there is body shaming at play here. Brian is being accused of killing Gabby (with no evidence of doing so) and brians name is being dragged through dirt. These same people will watch a Ted bundy documentary and fawn and swoon…”
Case-watchers and Petito family supporters are taking the bait. “Why isn’t this subreddit renamed like Loser Incels or something?” one commenter noted. Another chimed in: “Stop worrying about body shaming and worry about the fact that you’re mentally ill enough to be supporting a murderer.”
The disturbing conspiracy and trolling groups are a side effect of the lurid fascination with Petito and other missing or murdered white women, who are almost deified in the press and on social media after they become victims of violent crimes. On TikTok, the hashtag #GabbyPetito had 1 billion views and #BrianLaundrie had 583.2 million on Sunday.
Soon after Petito was reported missing on Sept. 11, and her story lit news networks and social media aflame, many reasonable people pointed out the delirium amounted to “missing white woman syndrome.” The term, coined in 2004 by PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill, describes the fevered and inordinate coverage of, and obsession with, young, usually upper-middle-class white women who disappear. Meanwhile, there is a dearth of such reporting on Black and Latina women and women of lower economic status. According to reports, 710 indigenous people, mostly girls, vanished between 2011 and 2020 but their stories hardly broke through to the news cycle.
Even seemingly facetious Laundrie “stans” acknowledge this grim reality. As one r/BrianLaundrie ringleader, a user named BrianDidntKillGabby, pointed out: “If she was indigenous or black, no one would have put nearly as much effort into finding her.”
But in Petito’s case, cybercitizens around the world are out in force to demand justice and ferret out potential leads. Since the 22-year-old #vanlife influencer was discovered dead in a Wyoming national park on Sept. 19, strangers crafted heartfelt and photoshopped tributes to a woman they never knew, depicting her as a haloed angel or tragic symbol of violence against women. Armchair TikTok sleuths shared tips and supposed Laundrie sightings and broadcast their theories on Petito’s case in real time, analyzing bodycam footage from Utah cops related to a domestic dispute with Laundrie, who is believed to be the last person to see her alive. TikTok and Instagram psychics also jumped into the deluge with tarot readings focused on Petito’s final moments and Laundrie’s whereabouts as the FBI hunts him down.
On Reddit, Petito supporters are converging on r/GabbyPetito, a community that ballooned to 128,000 members under the banner: “She touched the world” and includes case discussion alongside hundreds of memorials.
“Gabby, today I hiked up Mount Rainier to 8,000 feet, the highest I could possibly safely go, and left you a single white carnation,” one user wrote. Another person saluted, “Gabby your spirit soul sense of adventure has captured all of us. I signed up yesterday to volunteer at a DV [domestic violence] center. Yesterday was my 55th Birthday & I am devoting the rest of my life to this. You wanted Love from one person & in the end The World fell in love with you.”
“Your story hit me very hard Gabby,” a third member posted. “I’m a 28 yo guy who didn’t think he can get affected by stories like this but I haven’t slept the past 3 nights and can’t do anything productive seeing your face crying for help but no one around to save you everywhere I go.”
Over the weekend, r/GabbyPetito’s moderators addressed the “missing white woman syndrome” controversy suffusing the subreddit and announced they would remove “race-related” debates and comparisons to other missing persons investigations. “How the media is choosing to cover this case, why they’re choosing to cover it in a specific way and the way it is being discussed on other social media platforms belongs on a general discussion sub that relates to true crime,” the moderators wrote. “It no longer belongs here as the debate surrounding it is growing and further minimizing the very real loss of human life as it pertains to Gabby Petito.”
“We urge all of the members of our community (and its lurkers) to look into other missing persons cases. It is a tragic fact that people go missing every day,” they wrote, adding links to other forums like r/MISSINGBIPOC and r/SavetheNextGirl. The description of the latter subreddit says it’s “[d]edicated to those forgotten due to the disparity in media coverage between cases of missing white upper-class women and those of a lower social class and minorities.”
S. Shyam Sundar, professor and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University, said internet users can become transfixed with certain crimes despite not knowing the victims personally because of surveillance gratification, or the need to closely monitor the story for their own betterment or safety. A perhaps even bigger contributing factor to the true-crime craze is virtual voyeurism, where social platforms become one big reality show—except more tragically authentic—and one that users can participate in themselves, rather than entertainment created for mass consumption.
While law enforcement has leveraged crowdsourced sleuthing, Sundar told The Daily Beast, a vast majority of people won’t end up providing useful leads. “It’s voyeurism, feeling like they are part of an unfolding story themselves,” he added, “because they are contributing to the plot twists and turns by discussing them on social media.”
Some users, however, have come forward with potentially useful information. An Instagram influencer named Nina Angelo posted a story where she claimed to witness Laundrie and Petito fighting at a Wyoming restaurant called the Merry Piglets on Aug. 27. (On its own account, the restaurant confirmed the couple dined there and said it contacted the FBI.)
On the same day, footage from travel vloggers Kyle and Jenn Bethune appears to show Petito’s van in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. The couple says they were in the recreation destination with their kids and dog at the same time as Petrie and Laundrie but didn’t know until they reviewed their GoPro footage.
Miranda Baker went to TikTok to claim she and her boyfriend picked Laundrie up as a hitchhiker in Wyoming on Aug. 29.
Empowered users feel a “kinship with others who contribute content” and create a community around specific cases, seeing relatable parallels in their own lives, Sundar said. “The fact that it [the Petito case] has caught so many people’s imagination suggests that at least some parts of it, the road-tripping aspect, the domestic quarrel aspect, are resonating with large numbers of people.” That Petito and Laundrie were minor social media celebrities only adds to the intrigue, he said.
Still, in the web’s ghastly crawl spaces, a series of inflammatory subreddits and Facebook groups are cropping up to declare Laundrie the real victim in this weeks-long drama, and denigrating Petito herself as the abuser. While a majority of channels appear to be swarming with trolls and provocateurs bent on riling Petito’s supporters, they’re attracting various genuine Laundrie defenders, men who say they’ve been victims of female abusers, and Petito family well-wishers who may have missed the cruel satire.
“People defending Brian should be ashamed of themselves,” one pro-Petito user wrote last week on the subreddit r/FriendsOfBrian, where users have created “Brian Lives Matter” art using a #BLM design, superimposed Laundrie’s face onto footage of a bare-chested male artist, and share posts such as: “Is Gabby faking her death with the help of Fox News and other media outlets?” The angry interloper added, “She was found dead. He’s fine. He told her she was a crappy blogger. Her blog had thousands of hits. More attention than any of you will get in your lives. Stop defending abusers.”
“Defend domestic violence?” a troll responded. “What are you talking about? We have been standing at Brian’s side since the beginning. He is a victim of physical abuse at the hands of GP. Domestic violence is no joke.” Another person, appearing to be serious, chimed in: “I am defending Brian because I believe he’s the real victim of domestic abuse and I want to see the toxic view of only men being abusers changed. For myself I was abused as a young child and my abuser was female.” The channel has inspired a less popular but more offensive subreddit, which is a play on white supremacist tropes and clearly mocks passionate Petito memorials shared on other forums.
And in the netherworld of r/BrianLaundrie, a Petito backer stepped in to declare the dwellers of the 1,700-member community “deranged groupies.” Among posts pondering who would play Laundrie in a movie, photoshopped images of Laundrie wearing various wigs and in disguise, and general case updates was a flippant cri de coeur titled: “For the haters wondering why Brian stans exist.” The poster said, “There is a thriving hair deficient community on Reddit and on the internet. We have each others backs just like women always have each others backs. We support each other and lift each other up.”
Meanwhile, the Facebook group “Justice For Brian Laundrie” is also netting a fair share of trolls, sockpuppet accounts and sincere true-crime fans. The community, with cover art picturing Laundrie as an angel and the victim as a red devil, has 11,000 members but was actually created long before the Petito frenzy. The group was created in 2012 and five years later christened “I ♥ Big Trucks, Mudding, Bon Fires & Country BOYS!” before transforming into “Abolish Critical Race Theory” in June and a Laundrie sympathizer site on Sept. 20.
“Brian was framed,” one member declared last week. “This entire thing was a government coverup to distract from Biden’s Afghanistan mistakes as the Taliban flaunts their new American weapons and the southern border turns into a shitshow. Brian will not be reappeared until it’s timely for us to need further distraction.” (Meanwhile, Newsweek and Insider recently highlighted how Petito’s case has permeated QAnon forums with similar conspiracy theories.)
“Just like with any kind of reality TV or even for that matter, fictional primetime drama, or afternoon soap operas, viewers take sides,” Sundar said. “There’s conflict. Some people will go Gabby’s route, some people will favor Brian. This even more supports this notion that this is all a show for them.”
The metastasizing fascination with the Petito investigation is nothing new when it comes to high-profile crimes involving white women. Amateur gumshoes flocked to Facebook groups dedicated to the August 2018 case of Shanann Watts, who along with her two young daughters, was murdered by her husband Chris Watts.
Chris Watts initially told TV reporters his wife went missing, and that he had no idea where she was, and made a bizarre lackluster plea for her return. Because Shanann had religiously documented the family’s life and her dietary supplement business on Facebook before her death, voyeurs and sympathizers spawned countless groups to memorialize the victims—and to this day, people photoshop artwork dedicated to the family and commemorate Shanann and the girls on their birthdays. On TikTok, people continue to share present-day video of the couple’s old house and of the victims’ gravesites, alongside old family videos glommed from Shanann’s online presence.
In a 2019 interview, the district attorney who prosecuted Watts for murder told The Daily Beast that during and after the probe, his office received a flood of emails from concerned citizens and tipsters outside the jurisdiction and Colorado.
Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said that even after Watts was convicted, people sent angry emails about the killer dad’s mistress not being prosecuted, too. The case “snowballed into a story that people across the country could relate to,” Rourke said at the time. “Everybody could see a piece of this family and think, that little piece is similar to me.”
If true-crime aficionados zeroed in on their own suspected persons of interest, they sometimes stalked and harassed them on social media. Rourke said that at one point, a coworker of Watts who had nothing to do with the case became the subject of a rumor, and company lawyers asked him for help. Shannan’s brother was also targeted and harassed by strangers on social platforms, Rourke added.
While investigators monitored social media for potential leads—especially before the bodies of Shanann and the girls were found—most missives from armchair sleuths became a hindrance to the investigation. “As it relates to a major investigation like this, the negatives far outweigh the positives,” Rourke said.
In Petito’s case, followers are similarly inspecting her and Laundrie’s Instagram handles and shared TikTok dedicated to their road trip, replete with footage of picnics in Blood Mountain in Georgia and tents at Utah’s Zion National Park. On YouTube, the couple’s single video now has more than 5 million views. Netizens have analyzed the couple’s body language, reading material and Spotify playlists and shared their takes on the investigation. At least one Pagan TikToker put a hex on Laundrie. “What you get is deserved-I’m just ensuring it happens,” the text on the solemn video states.
Laundrie, who is still missing and hasn’t been charged with Petito’s death, returned from the couple’s four-month cross-country trip to his parents’ home in North Port, Florida, on Sept. 1. He was alone and driving Petito’s white van.
On Sept. 16, five days after Petito’s parents reported her missing, North Port’s police chief announced Laundrie was exercising his constitutional right to remain silent. The next day, Laundrie’s parents told cops they hadn’t seen their son since Sept. 14.
Last week, the feds issued an arrest warrant for Laundrie—though not in connection to Petito’s homicide. He’s charged with bank fraud and accused of spending $1,000 using Gabby’s debit card, after she died, on Aug. 30 and Sept. 1.
The pair’s final TikTok video, posted on Aug. 20, shows a smiling Petito, who says, “I love the van.” Laundrie, grinning, added, “Since we left New York, I’ve only sat in my hammock once, and now we’re all the way in Utah and luckily enough I was able to set up my hammock in one of these trees.” The video then pans to footage of the van’s interior.
“One day this footage will be used in a documentary,” one commenter noted. A second person added, “He has the same lookin his eyes as Chris Watts.” “You would think by watching this video they are so happy together and have a perfect relationship,” another person wrote. “Really shows how social media deceives you.”