Most people wake up and check their phones to read what the latest news is or hear what new sound is trending on Tik Tok. Unfortunately, amid those scrolls through Instagram and Twitter, the mysterious deaths of two women have gone viral–Gabby Petito and Lauren Smith-Fields. Two beautiful lives were tragically and heartbreakingly lost.
Both Petito and Smith-Fields disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Hearing about the death of their loved one was enough for close family and friends. However, not knowing how much-valued lives were lost only added to the ache of the families. Not only were both families perplexed by such mysterious deaths, but once their tragedies were brought to social media, people all over the world felt that there were missing pieces to the stories of their deaths.
Within the span of a few days, Petito’s death went viral on TikTok. Thousands of videos surfaced on the internet regarding her seemingly inexplicable disappearance. Not only did users question why she suddenly vanished but also how she disappeared. Similar to the public’s viral concern about Petito, thousands of posts and reposts were made about how Smith-Fields passed away.
As the two cases continued being shared across social media platforms, people on the internet became deeply involved and invested in finding answers to the questions of their deaths. While the detectives searched for answers, it seemed as though the internet searched a little harder. Social media users did not rest without a push for an in-depth investigation.
While both women had questionable circumstances surrounding their deaths and viral concern over social media, there are many discrepancies between the sense of urgency in the investigations.
In regard to representation in the media from social media posts to major news articles, Petito and Smith-Fields were not portrayed in similar lights. However, what is interesting about this discrepancy in media portrayal is that Petito and Smith-Fields were both aspiring social media influencers but were represented in two different ways. Several news outlets chose to include photographs of Lauren in a bikini, while the suspect of her death is presented with professional attire. This simple difference unintentionally sexualizes and objectifies Smith-Fields, subconsciously creating a new narrative about her story.
There is even a noticeable difference in the ways in which both cases went viral. When it came to the death of Gabby Petito, social media involvement not only included obvious concern, but also devoted time into investigating, creating timelines, and critical analysis that led up to the time and location of her death. When social media users connected Petito’s case to her boyfriend, police immediately reported him as a person of interest.
While online detectives did help bring awareness to Smith-Fields’ case, it was obvious that unequal attention was yielded to create the same sense of urgency in comparison to the Gabby Petito case. The mysteries within Smith-Fields’ case go beyond why or how she died, but even who killed her. Unfortunately, Smith-Fields’ family had to resort to hiring a private detective when the man Smith-Fields was last seen with was announced as a person “not worth looking into” or a “nice guy.”
These many discrepancies are where the investigation and sense of urgency of a Black woman become a problem. Not thoroughly investigating her case and not finding a suspect “important enough” is one of the many instances where the violence against Black communities are silenced and ignored.
It is important to look at this story beyond the community it happened in, and the community one resides in. The outcomes between these cases show how important it is to listen to the voices of the community and take proper consideration to respect them. Throwing overcrowded parties and littering in residential areas is a simple example of silencing the voices of the communities one is surrounded by.
Of course, it is easy to view the silencing of outsiders as “college comradery.”Despite this, it is important to understand that Providence, RI, and particularly the Elmhurst/Smith Hill neighborhood, is home to hundreds of people other than students that live on the campus of Providence College.
The motivation to search for answers and closure fell short when it came to a Black woman, not because one was more important than the other, but only because society is used to ignoring and normalizing violence against Black communities.
The deaths of Lauren Smith-Fields and Gabby Petito are heartbreaking, and there should not be a difference in the sense of urgency. The way that Petito’s case was treated should not be viewed as something “better” or “more” but rather as the blueprint that all cases should be investigated.