Ten years ago, Sunil Tripathi walked out of his apartment in the middle of the night and disappeared.
The 22-year-old left behind his phone, his wallet, and a worrying note. His girlfriend frantically called Sunil’s family a day and a half later, and they dropped everything to go looking for him.
For more than a month, the family from the Philadelphia suburbs lived near Brown University’s campus, where Sunil had finished his junior year. They scrubbed surveillance footage from the school and local businesses. They enlisted friends to cover the city with fliers.
They rented a boat to search the Providence River, and supporters put up a missing person billboard over a freeway. And the Tripathis turned to the Internet, blanketing social media with solicitations for tips and information about their missing loved one: “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi.”
It was on the Internet — 10 years ago next week, right after one of the worst days in Boston history — that their search for Sunil morphed into a witch hunt that compounded the family’s tragedy, soiled Sunil’s name, and underscored the horror of how misinformation can so easily spread on the Web.
For 12 long hours, amateur sleuths, social media users, and some in the media wrongly proclaimed Sunil was a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. Speculation morphed into established fact, baseless claims took root. And then, the faceless mob moved on, leaving an already grieving family devastated in its wake.
“It just seemed unbelievably merciless,” his mother, Judy, recalled. “Just unbelievably cruel.”
On April 15, 2013, the day of the 117th running of the Marathon, Sunil Tripathi’s siblings, Sangeeta and Ravi, joined the masses along the route and cheered on a friend.
The pair needed a break — it had been nearly 30 days of searching for their brother — and celebrating a friend’s success would serve as a much-needed distraction.
They camped out near the midpoint of the Marathon and cheered and exchanged hugs when their friend flew by.
But minutes after he finished the race, two bombs exploded near the finish line. None of them were hurt, but the trio drove back to Providence shaken and confused.
The Tripathis had been planning another social media campaign to spread Sunil’s name but, in light of the bombing, decided to wait a few days.
“It just felt like tragedy on top of tragedy,” Judy recalled.
It only got worse.
Three days after the bombs exploded, as the family milled in their rented Providence apartment, a laptop started to ding with notifications from Facebook. A few comments popped up, linking Sunil to the Marathon. Then, a phone call from a reporter with an oblique question: Had they seen photos from the Boston bombing? Had they heard from Sunil?
Within minutes, the flood overtook them.
The comments were angry and vicious. They called Sunil a terrorist, lobbed expletives, accused him of acting on behalf of Al Qaeda.
Their basis: Blurry photos shared by the FBI had made their way around the Internet and took hold in a dark corner of Reddit, where amateur sleuths tried to make sense of them. A misinformed hunch led to a spike in speculation on message boards, which led to widespread musing, and to some in the media publicly identifying the 22-year-old student by name.
Sunil Tripathi was supposedly suspect number two in the bombing.
All of those claims, statements, suggestions were absent a scintilla of truth. But for so many in that moment it didn’t matter.
That night, the Tripathi family’s phones rang ceaselessly. Death threats filled their inboxes. Social media commentary surged.
Even today, the bombing is still the first thing people see when they look up Sunil Tripathi’s name.
It’s not how Judy Tripathi ever imagined people thinking about her son.
On a cold afternoon last month, nearly 10 years to the day her son vanished, Judy Tripathi welcomed a reporter into her home in the Philadelphia suburbs.
She’s a slight, gracious woman in her 70s, haloed by a cloud of soft brown curls and still easily brought to tears. Inside, photos of her family are everywhere. Her grandkids, barely 2 months and 3 years old, smile from the refrigerator door. Her children are there in every stage of life: babies laughing from collages on the walls, kids hugging each other inside picture frames on every table, grownups smiling serenely from photographs pinned up over the doorways.
Sunil, she said, had always been the baby of the family.
Hindu priests had blessed the boy in his earliest days, warning that the stars were bad when Sunil was born, she recalled. They gave him a moon necklace as protection — a pendant that Judy occasionally wore through his childhood.
But childhood for Sunil was easy. He had a quiet confidence in himself unlike other kids his age, and a quirky, cerebral personality, several friends recalled. He found a love for philosophy and the saxophone.
He pursued those passions at Brown, thriving in his first two years. And he called his mother nearly every night, mindful of her empty nest back home.
But in his third year, a fog settled in. He felt tired, listless. Phone calls were fewer and far between, and his schoolwork and music faltered.
He went on an academic leave, but stayed in Providence, taking odd jobs and sharing an apartment with some friends. A year went by. His classmates began graduating and leaving town. Judy could feel her son retreating too — especially from her, she said.
And then she received the news that Sunil had vanished.
Even before the smoke settled on Boylston, one question emerged: Who could have done such a thing?
Police departments and federal law enforcement descended on the city. So did Internet users, who flocked to forums to crowdsource information about the bombers.
One Reddit board — r/findbostonbombers — became a central hub for sharing photos and observations.
Some theorized about the motivations behind the attack or how many people might be involved. Others shared before and after photos of the bombing, annotated with their own suspicions.
From the start, some of the speculation seemed ugly and conspiratorial, recalled Chris, a casual Reddit user who was asked by the board’s creator early on to help moderate the online conversation. (She asked that her last name not be used to protect her identity.)
Chris told the Globe she and other moderators tried to keep the most irresponsible theories in check. She whipped up rules for the forum explicitly urging posters to avoid “vigilante justice” or sharing personal information. She thought the board could be a force for good, but it quickly got out of hand.
On the afternoon of April 18, users zeroed in on blurry photos that the FBI had released, three days after the bombing. Commenters tried to identify leads like their hat or clothing brands, or glean other physical details, like their heights.
Someone also posted a photo of Sunil, next to a photo of a suspect, and asked if anyone saw a resemblance.
In the grainy pixels, a few did. A former high school classmate of Sunil’s wrote on Twitter that she was “more than a little freaked out.” “Looks just like a kid from my area that went missing exactly a month ago and has yet to be found,” she speculated.
On the Reddit forum, Chris tried to keep Sunil’s name from spreading. She deleted posts and warned off users, she recalled. But those attempts were futile.
In another forum, a user took it another step, asking the question more directly: “Is Sunil Tripathi Suspect #2?”
By then, an Internet mob had gone straight to the Tripathis.
Ravi and a handful of other friends and family members furiously deleted messages from a Facebook page dedicated to finding Sunil and tried to tamp the tide. They reached out to law enforcement contacts, asking how to handle harassment. But by 11 p.m. that night, they realized it was impossible. They shut the page down.
“We had no choice,” Judy said.
An FBI contact visited them in the middle of the night to show them photos that had not yet been released to the public, looking to make sure Sunil wasn’t in the picture. The agent, Judy recalled, reassured them Sunil was not a suspect.
But online, a different reality had already taken shape. Reports that the bombing suspects had gunned down an MIT police officer in Cambridge added fuel to the fire. The shutdown of the Tripathis’ Facebook page had, as they’d feared, fanned the flames.
At 2:43 a.m., a Twitter user named Greg Hughes claimed wrongly that a police scanner cited Sunil as a suspect. “BPD scanner has identified the names,” he wrote. “Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.”
Sunil’s name was never actually mentioned, later reports showed, and it’s unclear where Mulugeta’s name came from — he was never publicly linked to the bombing.
But several journalists retweeted the claim, most without context. On Reddit, Chris, the moderator, and others took the journalists’ retweets as confirmation.
“There were so many. It felt like it was a journalistic consensus,” she said. “It felt like they were genuinely saying this is who it is.”
Huddled together in Providence, the Tripathis didn’t sleep. Ravi and Sangeeta, who had for weeks handled most of the media outreach, watched their phones light up with calls and voice mails from reporters taking the fabricated tweets online as proof.
Finally, after 5 a.m., Pete Williams announced on NBC that Sunil wasn’t a suspect. By 8:30 a.m., media outlets and police had confirmed the bombers’ real names: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
The calls, the threatening messages, the false claims started to subside. The 12-hour suspect wasn’t a suspect any longer. And the Tripathis reopened the Facebook page and issued a statement.
“A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours,” they wrote. “We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil.”
Some apologies came in, but not nearly enough.
Erik Martin, the then-general manager at Reddit, wrote them a private apology and posted a public mea culpa. Chris posted her own apology on the subreddit before it was shut down.
“We cannot begin to know what you’re going through and for that we are truly sorry,” she wrote. “Several users, twitter users, and other sources had heard him identified as the suspect and believed it to be confirmed. We were mistaken.”
Sangeeta and Ravi reached back out to many of the reporters who had called them the prior night — many of whom had already moved on. They went on a carousel of television shows and news interviews to remind people Sunil was still missing.
“We just had to keep going,” Judy said. “We couldn’t afford to stop looking for Sunil.”
On their Facebook page, the family asked people to “lend a hand” by writing messages of encouragement on their hands and sending photos in. Hundreds of messages followed. You are loved, many said. Find your way back home.
Four days later, they found Sunil.
A few police officers and other law enforcement came to the rented house they were staying in, Judy remembers hazily. She sat on a loveseat while they told her the news. The Brown crew team had discovered him, they said, floating in the frigid waters off India Point Park. He’d died, weeks earlier, by suicide.
Today — after Pizzagate, InfoWars, and QAnon — this kind of false Internet furor feels almost routine. But 10 years ago, few could grasp the devastating effects of misinformation on the Web and how it could ensnare the innocent.
“The Boston Marathon bombing just really drives home where that very natural human process of trying to figure things out can go awry,” said Kate Starbird, a University of Washington associate professor whose research on misinformation grew in part from the Marathon bombing.
Around that time, researchers thought social media would lean toward more of a “self-correcting crowd,” she said, noting how it had been helpful in prior disasters like the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
But “it just turned out not to be the story,” she added.
In the years since, Internet networks have become more wired, Starbird said, and more likely to have people intentionally spreading misinformation to further their own interests.
“There were already a lot of shenanigans,” she said. “We weren’t paying a lot of attention to them yet.”
Here, the misinformation was also amplified by reckless media, remembered Neal Broffman, a documentary filmmaker and former CNN journalist.
“I’ve had arguments with journalists and people who say, well, you know, it’s trending out there,” he added, noting he could still see this happening again. “But Sunil’s name was brought into something that he should never have been brought into.”
The Tripathis cremated Sunil a few days after he was found. They held a quiet memorial service on campus, then scattered his ashes in the river where he’d been discovered.
Judy wanted to keep some, but Sunil’s father explained why they shouldn’t. If the ashes were divided, he told her, Sunil’s soul would never be able to rest.
“And I wanted him to be able to rest,” she remembered.
Judy has spent the last decade tumbling through questions: why Sunil left his apartment that night, how they should remember him, what she is supposed to do with her life now that he is gone.
Some of her time has been focused on suicide prevention: participating in overnight walks and a documentary film directed by Broffman (who afterward became a family friend) about the Marathon bombing, Sunil’s life, and his struggle with depression. Every year around his birthday, the family invites friends to a house they rent on the Jersey shore. They spend most of it catching up, making dinners and — for an hour every year — remembering Sunil’s life.
She has also spent those years trying to untangle Sunil from the memory of the Marathon bombing he had nothing to do with. The rumors weren’t true, but the bombing is still what defines him to the world.
It also erased his real story, Judy said, of a sweet and sensitive musician and philosopher, a brother and son who adored his family even as depression swallowed him up.
Those 12 hours that night — as painful as they were — pale in comparison to their grief now.
“It hasn’t left the biggest imprint,” Judy said. “It’s not what I carry forward.”
She wants to carry the social media messages of support, not suspicion. How friends and classmates came together to help her family look for him. They still tell her about their careers and invite her to their weddings. And her own family is growing: her infant grandson Sunny, named for his uncle, and granddaughter Molly, whose middle name is a variation of Sunil’s own.
In her home, Judy finds ways to keep him close. She keeps a candle burning perpetually on the kitchen island for her son. Around her neck, she wears a replica of the moon necklace given to Sunil when he was born.