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The TikToks trying to solve true crimes

Social media and in particular TikTok are creating a websleuthing trend. What has spurred it on and is it good, bad or both?

In the last couple of weeks a tragic disappearance, turned missing persons case, turned eventual homicide of 22 yr old influencer Gabby Petito went viral in the US, and in turn the wider world. A few elements came together to make this particular case particularly newsworthy; the fact that she had documented the picturesque instagram version of her #vanlife trip until the posts abruptly stopped, the fact that her fiancé who she had been on the trip with came back and refused to talk to police, the fact that it was all unfolding in real time (including big reveals like police dash cam footage that leaked).

As B&T put it: The true story has practically taken over TikTok, the app has amassed over 576 million tags of the hashtag #GabbyPetito and has been flooded with videos of TikTokers trying to help the police solve the case, popular hashtags include; #findgabby, #findinggabbypetito and #gabbypetitoupdate.

All of this came together to create an internet storm of regular people posting "clues" to help put together the whereabouts of Gabby, her fiancé and any facts that might "help" in the case. But in the process a whole lot of misinformation flooded the internet and the police. But arguably some key clues came from people who might not have been looking if not for the media buzz that was generated.

This is by no means the first case that has generated the effect of regular people turned crime solvers or "crowdsolving". The website "websleuthers" was born in 1999 but the trend is only gaining more and more traction with the more time we spend online and the comfort with which people post.

Other cultural markers both reflect and perpetuate this trend and its growing popularity


Concocted by those involved with Punchdrunk theatre (the creators of Sleep No More - the interactive Macbeth-based play that helped kicked off a huge interactive theatre trend) Isklander is a highly involved three part online-game. Within the games that can be played by groups of 1-6. Explained best by the company "Isklander blends the real with the imaginary, as players scour the internet searching for clues. Hack into emails, scrutinize social media posts, make phone calls, and inspect websites on your quest to unravel a centuries-old conspiracy. The line between what’s real and what’s part of the game becomes increasingly murky as your investigation picks up steam".


The recent Netflix series is based on a fictional mystery situation in which someone is abducted and a video of them put up online - the number of views it gets will seal the morbid fate of the abductee. As you might have guess the same sort of online clue hunting people were using in situations like Gabby Petito's is a central tenant of solving the crime.


This show enthralled people during 2020 lockdown more so than 2021. Would not suggest this viewing to most - but is a real life example of how the internet can come together to uncover crimes.

Zara Cooper


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