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Sunil Tripathi body found; Brown student was misidentified in Boston bombing

Based on photos from the Boston Marathon bombing, social media postings suggested Brown student Sunil Tripathi might be the suspect. Reddit apologized for the 'dangerous speculation.'

By Staff writer / April 25, 2013

This undated photo shows Brown University student Sunil Tripathi. The Rhode Island medical examiner's office on Thursday identified a body pulled from waters off a Providence park as that of Tripathi, missing since mid-March.

Courtesy of Brown University/Reuters

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Among the mistakes in early reporting of the Boston Marathon bombing was the implication that Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, an Indian American, was somehow involved.

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Brad Knickerbocker is a staff writer and editor based in Ashland, Oregon.

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After the FBI released pictures and video of the bombing suspects, posters to online sites Reddit and Twitter speculated that Mr. Tripathi looked like one of the suspects.

The 22-year old philosophy major had been missing since March 15.

On Thursday a body found two days earlier in the water at a Providence, R.I., park by the university crew team was identified as that of Tripathi.

Identified by dental records, the body was described by Providence Police Cmdr. Thomas Oates as having been in the water for "some time."

But before that, the burden on Tripathi’s family – and on many Indian Americans – was frightening.

He had left behind his cell phone and a note that apparently didn’t say much, writes Amy Davidson in the New Yorker. “But [it] was enough to remind his family of what they already knew: that he had suffered from depression, that they wanted him to come home, that they would do nothing but embrace him if he did.”

For hours – until brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were identified as the prime suspects in the Boston bombing – the Tripathi family agonized about what they knew to be wildly erroneous information posted about Sunil.

“What followed … was horrifying for those of us living away from our country of origin,” writes Shivangi Misra in Mint, an Indian business newspaper published collaboratively with the Wall Street Journal. “With each passing tweet, the chorus to establish Tripathi’s guilt grew. And with it, grew the fear of retribution that the Indian community in the US would likely face in the coming days.”

On Monday, Reddit general manager Erik Martin apologized for the "dangerous speculation" that "spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties."

In a blog post, reported by USA Today, Mr. Martin specifically apologized to the Tripathi family "for the pain they have had to endure."

"The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened," he said. "We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations.”

The shoot-from-the-lip nature of social media continued after Tripathi’s body had been found and identified.

“Alas! An Indian killed by hyper nationalist racists in the US for mistaken identity,” one Facebook poster wrote, only to acknowledge some time later when the true circumstances of Tripathi’s death had been pointed out – by another Facebook poster – that “I should have been more circumspect.”

Brown University President Christina Paxson sent a message to the campus community Thursday saying Tripathi – the brother of two Brown graduates – would be remembered for his "gentle demeanor and generous spirit," the Associated Press reports. She described him as an accomplished saxophonist and a "serious, thoughtful, intellectually curious student and a brilliant writer."

In the statement Thursday, the family asked for their privacy to be respected and urged the public to “exercise caution and treat human lives with delicacy.”

“This last month has changed our lives forever, and we hope it will change yours too,’’ the family wrote. “Take care of one another. Be gentle, be compassionate. Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it.”

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