In a New York Times Magazine longread today, journalist Jay Caspian Kang goes deep into the story of the time the internet falsely accused a missing Brown student, Sunil Tripathi, of being a suspect in April's Boston Marathon bombing. The article is heartbreaking.
Though the story of how Tripathi—who disappeared in March and was eventually found dead in the Providence River—was mistaken for a Boston bombing suspect has been told before, Kang's take is the most thorough to date. It's also a rather brutal condemnation of how lots of news is made these days: a strange amalgam of fact and hearsay spreads through social media and Reddit before being transmuted into content on websites.
"One thing we’ve been struck by is how porous the space is between social media, the media and law enforcement," Sunil's sister, Sangeeta, told Kang. In April, Sangeeta was inundated with dozens of calls from reporters asking her for comments about her missing brother turning up as a terror suspect. She and her family were forced to take down a Facebook page asking for help finding Sunil because it became overrun with hateful anti-Islam slurs (the Tripathis are not Muslim). When a family friend who'd been helping in the search for Sunil called a homeless shelter in Philadelphia to ask if the boy was there, the shelter responded by telling him they didn't give aid to terrorists.
After tracing the growth of the Sunil Tripathi rumormongering from Reddit to BuzzFeed editors to Anonymous and beyond (even to here at Gawker), Kang attempts to decipher what leads so many modern newsmakers to occasionally be so reckless with shoddy information:
It helps to envision modern journalism as a kind of video game. If you’re part of the Internet media, everything you put out into the world comes with its own scoring system. Tweets are counted by retweets and favorites, stories are scored by page views and Facebook likes. A writer’s reach and influence is visible right there, in the number of his followers and the number of "influencers" who subscribe to his or her feed. If you’re wondering why so many writers and journalists from such divergent backgrounds would feel the need to instantly tweet out unconfirmed information to their followers, all you have to do is think of the modern Internet reporter as some form of super Redditor — to be silent is to lose points. To be retweeted is to gain them. We do it for the "karma."
Sunil's mother, Judy, said there was a lot of irony in the fact that the digital hordes came to slander her son as a violent criminal: "Sunil was so gentle, and he was a victim of all that damn scandal, and he was a victim of his depression. It was just so ugly."