Times Examines How Reddit Smeared Missing Philly Student as Boston Bomber

The New York Times Magazine has a long piece examining how Reddit promoted the false theory that Sunil Tripathi—a then-missing, now-known-to-be-deceased Philadelphia student at Brown University—was actually one of the Boston bombers. The photo used as “evidence” in the court of Reddit opinion turned out to be of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but the theory grew from Reddit speculation to Twitter-fueled raging rumor in a matter of hours, spilling into the mainstream media.

Nobody comes off well in the piece, with the exception of Tripathi’s family. His parents, Akhil and Sangeeta, are quoted here:

At 5:16 a.m., Pete Williams of NBC announced that Sunil Tripathi was not a suspect, but speculation on Twitter continued. Around 6:45 a.m., after the Tripathis had received hundreds of threatening and anti-Islamic messages (though they are not Muslim) and after Suspect No. 1 was announced dead from injuries sustained at the shootout in Watertown, Mass., The Associated Press revealed the full name of Suspect No. 2: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But the Tripathi family’s troubles were not over. Akhil’s colleague, who had been helping with the search, called a homeless shelter in Philadelphia to see if Sunil had been there and was told that the shelter did not aid terrorists. According to the Tripathis, the private missing-persons organization that was working with the family informed them that Sunil’s association with the Boston bombings had ruined their business. Still traumatized, the Tripathi family decided to redouble their efforts to get out the word about Sunil’s disappearance. This meant going back to the same media who had been calling them all night. “We were very hurt and very scared and very angry,” Sangeeta said, “but we couldn’t afford to share those opinions with the media, because we were looking for Sunil. You realize how the power dynamics are so strong. We had to keep all of our anger and displeasure off the record.

“Almost every news outlet that came to us said the same three things,” Sangeeta added. “The first was, ‘How was that night?’ The second was, ‘Is Sunny still missing?’ And the third was, ‘This is a silver lining because now you’re getting his name out.’ It was interesting to see how formulaically they processed that arc. The costs to somebody who is in a fragile state are immense and not undone by a casual apology,” she said. “This is precedent-setting for what will happen for other individuals.”

Tripathi’s body was found April 23. It’s a devastating story. The Times concludes: “The Sunil Tripathi debacle isn’t really a ‘new media’ problem, much as those who think of themselves as members of the “old media” might like to see it that way. This is what media is now, a constantly evolving interaction between reporters working for mainstream companies; journalists and writers compiling and interpreting news for online outlets; and thousands of individuals participating on their own in the gathering and assembling and disseminating of information.” It doesn’t always work.