WASHINGTON: An Indian-American family in the Boston area was put through hell for several hours on Thursday night after their son, reported missing for several weeks now, was mistakenly named as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing case before a definite identification emerged.
Technology entrepreneur Akhil Tripathi and his wife Judy have already been in agony since mid-March when their son Sunil, 22, a Brown University philosophy major, disappeared. Their anguish turned to horror on Thursday night when reckless cyberjunkies began connecting spurious dots to name Sunil Tripathi as a possible suspect.
Tripathi’s name initially surfaced on the social media news site Reddit where users post opinion and news, often unverified, on a bulletin board. Other users then vote “up” or ‘down” on the submission to determine the rank and position of the submission on the site, creating a user generated momentum for content.
Tripathi’s name, already familiar to the news world because of strenuous efforts of his parents to trace him, was dragged into the Boston hunt through a series of coincidences. He hailed from the Boston area and had been missing since March 16; he was in the same age group as the suspects whose videos were released by the FBI; and his photographs culled from the internet showed a vague resemblance to the grainy image of one of the suspects. Compounding all this, his name was reportedly relayed as a possible suspect on a police scanner.
That perfectly suited the speculative efforts of a group of vigilante Reddit users who were already discussing possible suspects in their eyes, including Tripathi, by comparing publicly available photographs. Within hours, these dots were connected and his name was being relayed on Twitter and Facebook by reckless cyberjunkies, mindlessly retweeting and forwarding.
Old photos of Sunil Tripathi were extracted from various sites to show purported similarities to the bombing suspect. There was a flurry of xenophobic, racist, and even communal comments.
To some who were possibly relieved that the alleged suspect wasn’t a homegrown white supremacist type, a photo of Tripathi wearing a Che Guevera T-shirt was sufficient to show that he was a “left-wing, Marxist communist”. To others who were worried that the Boston bombing would be tied to Islamist extremism, he was a “Hindu brahmin.” One cyberwarrior tweeting under the handle @DrAQ_Khan gloated: “The alleged suspect for Boston bombings was a Hindu Sunil Tripathi. We urge Western media to now showcase all Hindus as Terrorists.”
For many Indian-Americans, suffused with pride about the community’s high standing in the US, the fast-spreading news came as a shock. Many of tweeted hoping that the story wasn’t true.
Some six hours later, word emerged from authorities that the suspects were two brothers from Chechnya, and Tripathi, still missing, was not a suspect. Out of the thousands of people who had relayed the false news, only a few apologized.
The only good thing that came out of the episode is that the story of his disappearance is now even more widely known and could help galvanize efforts to find him. Beyond that, it was a moment of shame and embarrassment for cyberbuffs who ride social media recklessly.