In April, a family was grieving for their missing 22-year-old son. Sunil Tripathi had been missing for more than a month; his roommate at Brown University hadn’t seen him since March 16.
His mother Judy, father Akhil, and sister Sangeeta worked with Brown and the FBI to find him for almost eight weeks. They created a Facebook page, “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi,” in case Sunil logged online. There he’d find messages from loved ones praying for his safe return.
In the middle of searching for their son, a new search for Sunil began on the 70-million member online community, Reddit. In less than 24-hours, Sunil’s name spread all over the Internet as the face of one of the two Boston Marathon Bombing suspects.
But he wasn’t guilty. As his family would soon learn, he was dead.
In a haunting interview with The New York Times’ Jay Caspian Kang, Sunil’s family reveals what it’s like to be on the other end of a Reddit witch hunt, watching your innocent son get thrust into the national spotlight and accused of a horrific crime.
On April 15 at 2:49 PM, two bombs went off near the finish line during the Boston Marathon. By 5:00 PM on April 18, grainy photos of two male suspects aired on live television.
The Reddit community, which proved to be helpful in surfacing information during the Aurora, Colo., movie theatre shooting, started a thread. Members began hunting for similar-looking suspects online, trying to solve the mystery from computer chairs.
Within minutes, brands worn by the bombers were correctly identified on Reddit and 4Chan. But then a user stumbled upon the Tripathi family’s Facebook page for Sunil. His photo was copied, pasted next to a photo of the youngest bombing suspect (who turned out to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) and uploaded to Reddit. Along with the photo comparison, the user submitted information about the missing Brown student. From there, misinformation and speculation spiraled out of control.
Within hours, nasty commenters began invading Sunil’s Facebook page. Later that night, when an MIT police officer was shot and killed, the messages became too much for the Tripathi family. They took down the page, which only further fuelled Reddit and Twitter’s fire.
From The New York Times:
At midnight, [BuzzFeed Senior Sportswriter Erik] Malinowski, whose Twitter following includes a number of journalists, tweeted: “FYI: A Facebook group dedicated to finding Sunil Tripathi, the missing Brown student, was deleted this evening.” Roughly 300 Twitter users retweeted Malinowski’s post, including the pop-culture blogger Perez Hilton, who sent Sunil Tripathi’s name out to more than six million followers.
…The next multiplier came from Andrew Kaczynski, another journalist at BuzzFeed, who sent out the police-scanner misinformation to his 90,000 followers and quickly followed up with: “Wow Reddit was right about the missing Brown student per the police scanner. Suspect identified as Sunil Tripathi.”
…The Internet fate of Sunil Tripathi was finally sealed minutes later when @YourAnonNews, a Twitter news feed connected to the hacker collective Anonymous, tweeted out Tripathi’s name to the hundreds of thousands of people who follow the account. By 3 a.m., in many heavily trafficked corners of the Internet, it was accepted that Sunil Tripathi was Suspect No. 2, and Reddit had got there first.
It was a long evening for the Tripathi family. NBC’s Pete Williams helped clear Sunil’s name when he confirmed that the missing boy was not one of the two suspects at 5:16 AM. But the damage had already been done. Sunil’s sister was called 58 times between 3 and 4:15 AM that day, Kang reports. The family told Kang it received “hundreds of threatening and anti-Islamic messages (though they are not Muslim).” Groups that had been working with the Tripathi family to find their son shied away, thinking he might still be one of the Boston bombers.
“All the sentiment and help we had received to help find Sunil switched over and said he was a terrorist,” Judy Tripathi tells Kang.
Journalists who fed the rumour mill and jumped to conclusions about Sunil Tripathi later apologized to the family, whether on the phone, in tweets, or in articles. Reddit did too. The site’s leader wrote that it hoped the lessons learned from Sunil Tripathi would help make the online community more sensitive in the future.
But all the “sorrys” won’t change those horrible hours for the Tripathis.
“You know the irony is Sunil was so gentle, and he was a victim of all that damn scandal, and he was a victim of his depression,” Judy Tripathi tells Kang. “It was just so ugly.”