In late December, J. Stokes was on Twitter when he first learned about the 23-year-old Black woman who was found dead in her apartment after meeting up with a Bumble date in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Wary about the accuracy of stories typically shared on the social media platform, Stokes searched to find a link to a Connecticut-based news site. It confirmed what had happened to Lauren Smith-Fields during her date with a man later identified as Matthew LaFountain, a 37-year-old design engineer.
Through a combination of internet sleuthing and connections with local contacts in Bridgeport, Stokes pieced together a string of troubling and frustratingly familiar details. Despite LaFountain being present with Smith-Fields at the time of her death, the Bridgeport police department declined to investigate him as a suspect saying he seemed like “a nice man.” Smith-Fields’ parents were informed of their daughter’s death not by the police but by a note left by the landlord on her apartment door. Responses to their requests for more information about what happened to Smith-Fields were slow. After the medical examiner’s autopsy found traces of drugs and alcohol, the county initially filed Smith-Fields’s death as an accidental overdose, only for the Bridgeport police to open a criminal investigation in response to public outrage fueled mainly by social media content creators like Stokes whose TikTok videos helped propel Smith-Field’s story into the national conversation.
Stokes, who runs an educational media platform and creates written and video content across sites such as Youtube, Medium, and Instagram, was still relatively new to TikTok and had only a few hundred followers when he decided to create a video highlighting Smith-Fields’ story, the lack of investment in her case by the police, and the minimal news coverage it had received. On a personal level, her case resonated because he grew up frequenting Bridgeport as a kid, but he also felt that “a lot of the time stories about Black women don’t really shine.”
“[The video] just blew up all of a sudden,” said Stokes. “’I’m like, wow, so I guess people are paying attention to the story now, and then other TikTok people started doing it.”
Since his initial post at the end of December 2021, Stokes’ video has amassed over 407,000 views and over 130,000 likes as of Feb. 11 and served as an introduction for an onslaught of other TikTokers who have made videos to spread awareness about Smith-Fields’ case. Since late December, #JusticeForLaurenSmithFields has circulated across TikTok as users share her story with one another and openly call out Bumble for their overall silence, the Bridgeport Police Department for their failure to investigate LaFountain, and the news media for their lack of coverage.
Roughly 33% of missing women in the U.S. are people of color and yet media coverage continually fails to reflect that resulting in delayed investigations and waning hope that loved ones will be found across the country. For Black women, the statistics are particularly grim. Over 64,000 Black girls and women are missing in the U.S., and cases involving them stay open four times longer than other cases on average. While statistics on missing Black trans women are even more poorly documented, data on the rate at which transgender and gender-nonconforming people face violence and death is far higher than the national average. According to Unerased, a database maintained by Mic, there were 153 homicides of transgender people between 2010 and 2018. Of those, 105 of them were Black trans women.
By contrast, robust and sustained media coverage is given to the cases of young white, middle, or upper-class cis women who have gone missing. The disparity is so common that in 2004, journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” to describe this phenomenon. These skewed dynamics couldn’t be clearer when juxtaposing Smith-Fields’ case to that of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman reported missing in mid-September 2021 before being found killed by her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, later that month in Wyoming. Petito’s story garnered sustained media coverage locally and nationally—far more than almost any other missing persons case, including the over 700 Indigenous people reported missing in Wyoming from 2011-2020.
As TikTok’s brand matures beyond viral dance challenges, news companies have begun acknowledging its ability to reach a younger demographic that is increasingly online. Over the pandemic, The Washington Post, for example, has found success on the platform, garnering 1.2 million followers and creating videos that truncate major stories into content ripe for Gen Z. However, less has been said about how TikTok fills in the gaps in many users’ news diets by sharing stories that traditional mainstream outlets have historically ignored and continue to neglect. On a platform fueled by content and trends made by its Black users, those stories are often ones like Smith-Fields’—about issues close to the hearts and minds of Black people, particularly Black women and femmes.
“This was definitely different”
Similar to journalists, social media content creators feel tasked to uplift cases of missing Black women that are ignored in mainstream coverage, providing updates about how investigations are unfolding to curious followers. For some TikTokers who routinely discuss topics related to racial justice or violence against Black people, engagement around Lauren’s case was notably higher and more sustained. Fiona Meehan, a TikToker who was also among the first on the platform to speak out about Smith-Fields’ case, noticed that more people were engaging with posts about Smith-Fields and even messaging Meehan through Instagram asking for updates on the case.
“It’s an ongoing investigation so [I am] figuring out what’s accurate, what’s inaccurate, [citing] my sources and then piecing together all the information,” Meehan said. “I’ve just connected with people who are helping me get information and who are following along.”
In the summer of 2020, Meehan began sharing content about local cases of police brutality in response to the uprising against police violence and the relative silence about issues of racial justice in her predominately white enclave in Orange County, California. As a Black woman, advocating for these cases was of personal significance but also incredibly triggering. She had taken a pause from creating content about racial violence due to the severe mental toll it was taking on her. However, when Meehan came across Stokes’ video about Smith-Fields, she knew she had to boost the story, especially when she couldn’t find any news outlets talking about Smith-Fields at all.
Since her first video about Smith-Fields, Meehan has created a small series of follow-ups, sharing consistent updates on whether Bumble has been offering support in the investigation and highlighting the Bridgeport Police Department’s lack of urgency. In one video, Meehan calls attention to the department’s social media presence and their failure to use their accounts to request tips about the Smith-Fields case or alert the public with updates. Instead, their page almost exclusively features posts about robberies, petty theft, and drug or gun charges—but only sharing photos when they are committed by residents of color.
Limitations of TikTok journalism
For all of the ways that TikTok has helped elevate Smith-Fields’ story, there are limitations to what the platform can do for users who are trying to bring attention to stories like hers. For one, the platform is not a news outlet and the desire of followers to learn new details about certain stories can often butt heads with a creator’s discomfort and ethical concerns around breaking news or sharing unconfirmed updates. In Stokes’ case, his ties to the Bridgeport area provided him with local contacts and he could garner information pertinent to Lauren’s case earlier than news organizations. Those preexisting relationships and his willingness to investigate deeper than news outlets gave Stokes a unique level of insight. Still, without the resources to fact-check, his ability to share those details with the public was stifled, especially by his awareness of how quickly information can be used to cast aspersions on victimized Black women.
“When it came out that she had drugs in her system, I knew that about two weeks before it [was reported], but because it didn’t hit the news, I didn’t feel comfortable saying it,” said Stokes. “It’s only kind of hearsay until it hits the news.”
Additionally, unlike social media personnel at news outlets who may have teams and institutional support to fall back on, TikTok creators are mostly on their own when engaging with and moderating comments to prevent the spread of harmful narratives and misinformation. It’s a difficult and stressful line to walk—creators want their accounts to be open enough to invite questions and engagement that could help elevate stories like Smith-Fields’ while also filtering out negative, hateful, and insensitive comments. For Meehan, those have come in the form of conspiracy theories that some users share in the comments section under her videos. Often those comments blame Smith-Fields’ family, many in particular try to implicate her brother in her death. Stokes’ videos have attracted similar comments, some of which blame Smith-Fields herself. Some users—even from within Stokes’ community—expressed disdain that she dated outside of her race while others have insinuated that she was involved in sex work and therefore brought violence upon herself.
“If I see a victim-blaming narrative, I will delete comments, and I will address comments as well,” Stokes said. “But it is kind of difficult because you’re trying to toe the line between [letting] people express their frustration versus people who are just being outright ignorant and hurtful.”
Insensitive responses is something that Angel Starr knows well and has seen on her own page. With over 207,000 followers, Starr has made a home for herself within “true crime TikTok,” a subcommunity that uses the platform to share true crime stories or elevate missing persons cases. She rarely saw people of color sharing true crime stories or Black women’s stories being covered. When stories featuring Black female victims were covered, Starr says they often weren’t given the same level of seriousness or gravity as other cases. Despite her daily news searches and how deeply steeped she is in stories about the murdered and missing, Starr had been unaware about Smith-Fields until a follower alerted her to it.
“After I posted a video about it, there were people who said, ‘I live in Connecticut and have never heard of Lauren Smith-Fields,’ which just blew my mind [because] by the time that I had done the story it was the end of the month, and she had already passed two weeks prior and yet a lot of people still did not know about it,” Starr said. “I think that just goes to show, especially in the media, how much we’re often forgotten about.”
Shifting the narrative
How users engage with these stories about missing and murdered Black women is also a reflection of how the news media portrays these cases. The validity and prominence of mainstream outlets gives them a great deal of power in shaping the narrative around high-profile cases of this nature. Stokes, Meehan, and Starr have all noted that while it is positive that local and national outlets have begun to cover Smith-Fields’s case, there are some troubling ways that her story has been framed.
“There were definitely some articles that have come out that are very disrespectful in the way they’re presenting Lauren versus Matthew LaFountain—the last person to see her alive,” said Meehan. “It’s common in cases with Black women or Black people in general.”
Starr agreed, noting how the press emphasized the tequila Smith-Fields drank, how she went outside and then came back in. By comparison, it seemed clear that LaFountain’s identity as a white man, in particular, absolved him from suspicion in the eyes of not just the police but the mainstream media as well.
“I feel like they were framing it in a way to look like she was doing drugs or that she drank too much alcohol,” said Starr. “And then [LaFountain] mentioned that she fell asleep after the movie, and he carried her to the room, so there was just a lot of romanticizing him, I guess, making him seem like the hero that really took care of her before her demise.”
Starr says that the narrative began to shift when Black TikTok and Black Twitter began calling out specific media outlets who had promoted this skewed framing. She believes that sustained pressure from social media and public dissatisfaction with the conclusions gleaned from Smith-Fields’ autopsy also played a role in pushing the Bridgeport Police Department to finally open a criminal investigation.
“I think that they did try to push a narrative, and it just didn’t work because we’ve been through this so many times that I feel like we’re catching on, and we’re not just going to take what you say as the truth because you’re the news,” said Starr.
Social media presents opportunities to disrupt the stereotypes that mainstream media often perpetuates, but it also has its pitfalls. While people like Stokes are glad that their followers and users across sites like TikTok have become invested in Smith-Fields’ story, he is concerned that these apps can also breed inaction. He worries that this “collective outrage” can devolve into cases like Smith-Fields’ becoming “memefied” in much the same way that Breonna Taylor’s murder was in 2020. Posts about specific Black women and the tragedies that they face can become trends and tools to display the moral righteousness of the person posting it as opposed to legitimate efforts to raise awareness.
“When I posted a video with how to email people [in the Bridgeport Police Department and local city government], it didn’t really get much traction,” said Stokes. “But on videos where I’m [just] telling the story, everybody is like, ‘Oh, this is so terrible!’ It’s easier to say that than to actually do the work. Yeah, there’s this collective outrage, but what are you willing to do?”
It’s worthwhile then to consider what #JusticeForLaurenSmithFields would mean beyond just national recognition of her story.
For Meehan, it might look like reopening cases from the Bridgeport Police Department given its notorious neglect of cases involving Black women. After Smith-Fields’ case began receiving more attention, TikTokers learned about and began boosting the story of Brenda Rawls, a 53-year-old Black woman also living in Bridgeport who died on the same day as Smith-Fields. On Dec. 12, Rawls told her family that she was stopping by the home of a male friend who lived nearby. Two days later, Rawls’ family had yet to hear from her, and so they paid a visit to the man’s house who told them Rawls had died at his home two days prior and the coroner had taken her body. Bridgeport Police similarly neglected to investigate Rawls’ case or notify her family of her death. TikTokers who supported Smith-Fields’ case are currently trying to drum up more support for Rawls.
“That police precinct has a lot of issues and clearly there’s a racial bias against Black people and brown people,” said Meehan. “And it’s not just the Bridgeport Police Department, it’s a lot of police departments.”
Crucially, while Smith-Fields’ case is important to understand within the context of “missing white woman syndrome,” it’s also a story of a woman who died in her home under circumstances that suggest sexual assault may have occurred. While searching Lauren’s home after her death, the Smith-Fields family found an unused condom, an opened bottle of lubricant, pills, and a blood stain at the middle of their daughter’s bed all despite the fact that LaFountain claims they never had intercourse or even removed their clothes. None of these items were entered into evidence by the Bridgeport Police, which only underscores findings that show the police’s incapacity and unwillingness to address sexual violence even in its aftermath.
According to statistics compiled by RAINN, an overwhelming majority of survivors of sexual violence do not report their assault to police due to a host of reasons including fear of retaliation by their abuser, fear of being harmed by the police, and fear that the police would not do anything to help. Of the approximately 30% of survivors who do report to the police, only 5% of those reports result in an arrest and about 2.5% result in a conviction. In “What About the Rapists?” a zine created by the organizing group Interrupting Criminalization, writers Mariame Kaba and Eva Nagao explain that even the small handful of sexual assault cases that result in incarceration “just moves sexual violence behind the prison walls. It doesn’t stop it. This is not a system flaw, it’s system design.”
That it was the commitment and persistence of Black TikTokers like Stokes, Meehan, and Starr that helped create the possibility for Smith-Fields and Rawls’ families to find some semblance of justice in the wake of their loved ones deaths is ultimately a condemnation of the news media and the police—institutions that profess to keep us safe, aware, and protected. For all the ways news organizations succeed at functioning as legitimate sources of information through the efforts and reporting of trained journalists, they are still susceptible to personal and institutional biases when choosing which news to cover and the narratives they use when doing so. Those biases often leave the burden on people outside those institutions to demand justice for Black women like Smith-Fields and Rawls.
“It had to take us screaming on TikTok for two months or so to finally get people to acknowledge it,” said Meehan, “and to get the police to do their job.”