April 15, 2015; Daily Beast
As the penalty phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial is underway, with the prosecution having just rested, a new documentary looks at the search for Sunil Tripathi, 22, the missing Brown University student who was wrongly accused in a social media firestorm of being involved in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Directed by Neal Broffman, “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi” premiered last month in Atlanta and continues to be screened at film festivals around North America. It will have its international premiere this week at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. The documentary is a homage to those 12 hours Tripathi was incorrectly linked to the Marathon bombings and the apologies that came after discovering Tripathi’s story was a tragedy all its own. From the trailer, this documentary appears to be taking back a piece of Tripathi’s memory that was stolen in those 12 hours of irresponsible reporting.
According to director Broffman, the documenters’ connection with the Tripathi family was key to the 75-minute movie being made. Broffman and his wife, executive producer Elisa Gambino, had previously known Tripathi’s sister and had actively helped in the effort to find her brother before the Marathon bombings had even happened.
Going through a bout of depression, Tripathi had already been missing for a month—since March 16th—when Twitter users began comparing his face to the Tsarnaev brothers, initially labeled “Suspect #1” and “Suspect #2.”
Reddit threads starting popping up, crowdsourcing information and images to piece together how this happened. Individuals started connecting the dots between Tripathi’s mysterious disappearance and the timing of the bombings. It wasn’t long before someone fingered Tripathi on Twitter. “Oh my God. It was Sunil. I’m shaking. I cannot believe it.”
“@kmattio: Oh my god. It was Sunil. I’m shaking. I cannot believe it.”
— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) April 19, 2013
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The original Tweet has since been deleted.
Of course, it wasn’t Sunil. In a monumental failure of citizen and online journalism, within hours of the allegations emerging from Twitter and Reddit, mainstream media was hounding the Tripathi family on completely unverified information.
“I became concerned that this is how we as a society are communicating and sharing information,” Broffman said in an interview with the Daily Beast.
Days after the allegations surfaced, Tripathi was found dead in the Providence River on April 23rd in an apparent suicide. He had died a month before the crime for which he was accused.
Apologies soon started coming from some of the online instigators that pursued the allegations against Tripathi, like this one from Reddit, credited to user BR0STRADAMUS, from two years ago:
“Sunil Tripathi has been accused of being Suspect 2 in the Boston Marathon bombings for hours on Reddit and all over Twitter. His name has been trending for the past 4 hours. Many posts and tweets have been calling for his death or pain on his family. We did this. Maybe we didn’t mean to, or even want to, but we did. The downside of instant journalism is that we sometimes get things wrong. And sometimes media outlets can take this false information and run with it.”
According to Broffman and Gambino, all of the journalists and bloggers that had tweeted about Tripathi refused to be interviewed for the documentary. (One lone former Reddit general manager did speak to them. She said the situation could have been controlled.)
“We were primarily concerned with and reaching out and trying to have a conversation with journalists who had actually done something to advance this rumor that Sunil was somehow a suspect,” Broffman said.
According to Broffman, audiences’ reactions to the movie have been general discomfort and shock. “Does that translate into changing one’s behavior?” Broffman asked. “I would like to think it makes someone think twice before hitting that button or make a comment about somebody. Where are they getting that information?”—Shafaq Hasan