IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Missing Brown University student's family dragged into virally fueled false accusation in Boston

Sunil Tripathi and his mother, Judy Tripathi.
Sunil Tripathi and his mother, Judy Tripathi.Courtesy of the Tripathi family

The family of missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, whose name was repeatedly blasted across social media as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, said it has been emotionally staggered by the erroneous reports.

His sister, Sangeeta Tripathi, said the family was forced to temporarily freeze its "Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi" Facebook page after that site — beginning Thursday evening — was peppered with a flurry of harsh and untrue posts about the student, who has been missing without a trace since March 16. The family is eagerly awaiting official word from law enforcement clearing Tripathi.

NBC News, via correspondent Pete Williams, reported on Twitter shortly after 2 a.m. Friday: "Speculation that one of the bombing suspects is a missing student is not correct," citing law enforcement sources. 

"It seems this is just the ugly underbelly of viral social media," Sangeeta Tripathi said. "But a lot of stir can be created through just a complete accusatory and unsubstantiated effort." 

"It’s had a huge cost on our family. We are all very depleted right now, just baseline over the past 34 days, and this has been very, very difficult," she added. "Without Sunil in our life, it's been very hard to have that publicity. 

"We are absolutely convinced, with no question at all, it’s not Sunil. We are eagerly awaiting formal public news to calm the pain on my family. We have not received a public apology at all. The FBI is incredibly busy as you can imagine in the investigation. The second law enforcement releases complete information on the suspects, it’s going up on our Facebook page." 

Twitter was ablaze overnight with tweets from users who said they'd heard Sunil Tripathi's name mentioned on Boston police radio frequencies in connection to the bombing investigation and during the massive manhunt that quickly unfolded Thursday night. The Tripathi family said it has no information corroborating that Boston police mentioned Tripathi's name. 

'Intense and ugly comments'

On Twitter, ‏‪@YourAnonNews tweeted overnight: "Police on scanner identify the names of #BostonMarathon suspects in gunfight, Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi." That was retweeted more than 3,000 times. On the twitter account for "Kevin Michael TV," which lists him as "behind the camera at WFSB news Channel 3 Eyewitness News" in Hartford, Conn., a similar tweet came at roughly the same time: "BPD scanner has identified the names : Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi."

As with Tripathi, no one named Mulugeta has been named as a suspect by the police. 

Meanwhile, the social news and entertainment website Reddit became overnight, Sangeeta Tripathi said, "one of the more ugly and disgusting places that had a lot of traffic ... There were very intense and ugly comments throughout the last 12 hours. A moderator posted an acknowledgement that without formal evidence, accusations should stop."

On Friday afternoon, the Tripathi family received an email from Erik Martin, the general manager of Reddit, “to apologize personally and on behalf of all our employees for … some of the people on our site's role in the spreading of this false idea about Sunny.” The Tripathi family immediately forwarded that email to NBC News.

“It's an extreme situation and we are deeply sorry that your family got caught up in it,” Martin wrote in the email. “I can't imagine what it must be like for your family to deal with this on top of what you must already be going through.”

The Tripathi family's Facebook page, set up to help locate Sunil and, until Thursday, filled with messages of hope and pictures of the student, began being hit with posts Thursday evening "from individuals who for whatever reason were making the association between what happened (at the Boston Marathon) and him, Sangeeta Tripathi said. 

The Tripathi siblings — there are three, with Sangeeta being the oldest and Sunil the youngest — grew up outside Philadelphia, Sangeeta said. The family has been huddled in Providence, R.I., home of Brown University, since Sunil disappeared last month. His nickname is "Sunny." 

Asked if the viral nature of the misinformation was racially fueled, she responded: "I’m not going to comment on that."

The spread of false rumors online is nothing new, but the combination of confusion and breaking news can create a particularly toxic situation.

In the immediate aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, when local officials incorrectly identified the shooter as Ryan Lanza, thousands of Twitter and Facebook users swarmed to repeat the accusations. Meanwhile, after the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., Facebook users who shared the suspect's name, James Holmes, found dozens of false accusations left on the pages.

Related links: