In the midst of the chaos in the Boston area last night, a missing Brown University student named Sunil Tripathi was falsely identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Suspect No. 2, now on the loose after Monday’s marathon bombings.
The accusation came shortly after a Reddit user posted a strikingly clear image of a man fleeing the explosion site who bore a startling resemblance to the one of the FBI’s suspects. Twitter and other social media outlets were soon teeming with eavesdropped chatter from police scanner reports, including a moment when the tweeters overheard Tripathi’s name.
The misinformation spread like wildfire. One of the most viral tweets, from the hacker group Anonymous, read, “Police on scanner identify the names of #BostonMarathon suspects in gunfight, Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.” The post was retweeted nearly 3,200 times.
As with Tripathi, no one named Mulugeta has been named as a suspect by the police. By 3:45 a.m., the two suspects were officially identified as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Tripathi has been missing since March 16, when surveillance cameras recorded him leaving his apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. The 22-year-old philosophy major left his computer, wallet, and phone behind, and the Providence Police Department says he also left a “vague note.” The Brown Daily Herald reported that he was struggling with depression and the note had suicidal undertones. No trace of Sunil been found since.
Immediately after his disappearance, his family launched the Facebook group “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi.” Last night, they deleted the page after the it was being bombarded with abuse and accusations. Since Tripathi’s name was cleared, the page has been rebooted, and the family issued a statement there this morning: “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. We are grateful to all of you who have followed us on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit–supporting us over the recent hours.”
There is widespread criticism about the irresponsibility on the part of “Reddit vigilantes” for jumping to and disseminating unfounded conclusions as this week’s terror has unfolded. Last night’s mistake also brings to mind the New York Post‘s false and hasty accusation of Salah Eddin Barhoum on Monday.
The moderator of the Reddit group that accused Tripathi put out a statement apologizing to his family for the misidentification: “I’d like to extend the deepest apologies to the family of Sunil Tripathi for any part we may have had in relaying what has turned out to be faulty information. We cannot begin to know what you’re going through and for that we are truly sorry. Several users, twitter users, and other sources had heard him identified as the suspect and believed it to be confirmed. We were mistaken. This event shows exactly why the no personal information until confirmation rule is in place. Out of respect for Tripathi and his family, I ask that users here please remove any and all links about him.”
If you have seen Sunil Tripathi or if you have information on his whereabouts, call the Providence Police at (401) 641-8691.