Earlier this week, we published a seemingly-straightforward news post about the disappearance of Brown University student Sunil Tripathi.
We directed the public to the Facebook page his frantic family had created to head the search and urged people who may have seen him to share any information with the authorities.
But that was before the Internet came along, took a missing person’s case and turned it into a textbook case of vigilantism gone wrong.
Late last night, we noticed some peculiar activity on Twitter centering around Tripathi’s disappearance. A large group of Reddit users playing amateur sleuths decided that the images released by the FBI yesterday afternoon were conclusively those of Sunil Tripathi.
That’s when the “hunt” began.
Before law authorities could even comment on the premature speculation, thousands of Twitter users began harassing the Facebook page and Twitter handle Tripathi’s family had created to find him. Fixated by their own zealousness, these Internet detectives began harassing every site that even tangentially mentioned Sunil — including The Aerogram.
It was an ugly end to an already ugly week.
In the face of an unending stream of threats the Tripathi family took down their Facebook page, Help Us Find Sunil. The page was back online this morning and featured this statement from the family.
“A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours. We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil.”
But it’s not just amateurs. The mainstream media is also playing a dangerous guessing game that too-often involves innocent bystanders. Tripathi wasn’t the only brown-skinned young man whose reputation was maligned in the aftermath of the bombings. Massachusetts high school student Salah Eddin Barhoum, 17, and his friend Yassine Zaime were stunned when they discovered that their photos were splashed on the cover of the New York Post on Thursday under the headline “Bag Men.” The two track athletes had attended the marathon as spectators.
Barhoum was so disturbed by the accusations that he visited his local police station in an attempt to clear his name. Despite that precaution, Barhoum told the Associated Press that he has been scared to go outside since the accusations and says he has received threatening messages from around the country. “It hurts because the person who did it must be happy right now, looking at the people who are getting blamed,” he said. “And I’m one of them.” Meanwhile, The Post continues to stand by their decision to use the photographs.
Political columnist Alex Pareene neatly broke down the details of the Tripathi “mishap” over at Salon.
“Sunil Tripathi is still missing. He did not bomb the Boston Marathon. Reddit and everyone else who ran with the theory that he did effectively did to Tripathi what the Post did to Salah Eddin Barhoum. Only they did it while Tripathi’s family wonders if he’s even still alive. The truth was revealed before the false accusation spread too far, but the damage is done.”
Just another story of an innocent getting smeared by the public’s frantic attempts to solve a complex case. It should be noted that the FBI has been involved in the investigation into Tripathi’s disappearance for weeks, meaning that he was well on the radar of both federal and local law enforcement. For what it’s worth, the moderator at Reddit issued an apology. But the damage has already been done.
What happened on Monday afternoon at the Boston Marathon was a horrific moment in this country’s history. Dozens of innocents were maimed. Three have died. But our collective impatience to seek answers is no excuse to suspend reason and give way to a mob mentality.
Now, more than ever, we must proceed with caution. Just this morning, only hours after folks were tweeting about Tripathi, Boston police offered the identities of two suspects of Chechen origin. But the story is far from over. The next time you are tempted to convict a suspect before justice has taken its full course — take a minute and stop. Pause. Think. Because next time the target may not just be the Sunil Tripathis of this world — it may be you.