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Missing student Reddit falsely accused of Boston Bombing is found dead

Apr 25, 2013

As the Boston Bombing becomes history, one of its most important narratives will probably be the way information around the bombing flowed at lightning-fast pace and spewed misinformation—even compared to what we’re used to in the 24-hour news cycle. During Sandy Hook, citizen journalists on social media had found Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page—initially misreported as the shooter—before Lanza seemed to have any idea his brother Adam had committed the crime. But the Boston Bombing took misreporting to a whole new level. New York Post reported 12 killed on Monday afternoon and the same day reported a Saudi national in custody for questioning, both baseless.

But Sunil Tripathi will be remembered as the face of misinformation around the Boston Bombing.

Shortly after the Bombing a subreddit popped on Reddit called /r/findbostonbombers—a sort of vigilante group of hackers and citizen journalists dedicated to helping the FBI solve the crime by crowd-sourcing information. While it clearly had the best of intentions the subreddit turned up a bunch of false suspects, through video surveillance snapshots and blips supposedly overheard on police scanners. New York Post unapologetically ran a photo of some brown-skinned backpack-wearing boys who turned out not to be suspects, but the one who really became the target of a witch hunt was Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had gone missing in mid March and whom one Redditor swore he heard mentioned over a police scanner as a possible suspect.

A Facebook page dedicated to finding Tripathi was suddenly subject to accusations that he was a terrorist, and for a few painful days his family had to endure the entire internet turning against them along with the pain of missing their son.

When the FBI released photos of the Tsarnaev brothers and announced them as prime suspects—also in part due to Reddit and social media—the moderators of /r/findbostonbombers issued a heartfelt apology to the Tripathi family and decided to close down /r/findbostonbombers, making it a private subreddit.

Today the family confirms their nightmare as medical reports that the body of Sunil Tripathi was found in a river in a city park in Providence, Rhode Island. They graciously posted an inspiring message on the Facebook page dedicated to finding him since March:

On April 23, our beloved Sunil was discovered in the waters off India Point Park in Providence, Rhode Island.

As we carry indescribable grief, we also feel incredible gratitude. To each one of you–from our hometown to many distant lands–we extend our thanks for the words of encouragement, for your thoughts, for your hands, for your prayers, and for the love you have so generously shared.

Your compassionate spirit is felt by Sunil and by all of us.

This last month has changed our lives forever, and we hope it will change yours too. Take care of one another. Be gentle, be compassionate. Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it.

With love,
The Tripathi Family

Though he had nothing to do with the Boston Bombing, Sunil will be remembered as part of the pitfalls of the information age: premature judgement. While we have more information than ever and it helps bring people like the Tsarnaevs to justice quicker than ever, it’s not without its ancillary damage, as Sunil’s legacy will attest.


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