As the shootout unfolded at Cambridge on Thursday night, Reddit was scanning through the photos released by the FBI and somehow started to associate "white hat" with the missing 22-year-old philosophy major Sunil Tripathi. The connection was made because of similarities to Tripathi's profile. Anger and helplessness fueled by the anonymity of the internet allowed for vigilante injustice to wrongly accuse Sunil, and created a harrowing night for the Tripathi family.
Tripathi, who has been missing from Brown University since March 16, 2013, was linked to Dzokhar Tsarnaev — the man who is now at the center of a Boston-wide manhunt — because of similarities in facial features. He was first linked to the bombings as early as Monday on Reddit and on Tripathi's former high school classmate Kami Mattioli's Twitter account.
His name resurfaced on Thursday night as vigilantes on Reddit picked up the low-grade physical similarity on its FindBostonBombers thread and started circulating the information on the Twitter. This was the same thread that New York Post used to falsely accuse two teenagers on The Reddit speculation became widely spread on Twitter and continued to be pursued by media outlets going forward:
Sunil's name apparently appeared on police scanners according to some reports during the confusion of the night, and that seemed to give Reddit and Twitter the official confirmation needed to justify the hunch. The speculation even was even picked up hacker vigilantes Anonymous that broadcast the false report on their Twitter feed:
NBC's Pete Williams was the first to squash this false report but it continued to gain traction until FBI released a second set of photos around 2am. Tripathi's classmate Kami started getting contacted by the media, and the still grainy photos did not help:
Earlier in the week Gawker and Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic wrote about the influence of the "racist Where's Waldo" being played out on Reddit's boards in the case of Sunil. It was not until early Friday morning that authorities released names and official photos that speculation finally died down. In the meanwhile, Sunil's family spent the last night being hounded by reporters and angry comments from the public. The Facebook page Sunil's family had set up to help find him had to be taken down because of hate-filled vitriol directed at the Tripathis.
The family released a statement this morning summarizing this unfair attention, saying "The last 18 hours have generated tremendous and painful attention — on social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, as well as from television media inquiries — linking Sunil to the video stills released by the FBI yesterday afternoon ... Unequivocally, we have known that neither individual suspected as responsible for the incident in Boston was Sunil." The family has been searching for Sunil since he left everything behind in his dorm room along with a cryptic note indicating his depressive state got the better of him.
As the world turns its attentions on Tsarnaevs, Reddit moderators have apologized to the Tripathi family, and social media's limitations in being effective investigators has been clearly displayed. Nonetheless, now that Sunil's story has become widely known, one can hope that the gusto with which he was blamed will now be channeled into helping locate the missing student and bring closure to the Tripathi family.