Boston bombing: How internet detectives got it very wrong

SWAT team in Boston search
As the police manhunt stepped up – some members of the public flocked to sites like Reddit to try and find their own clues

For the past 48 hours, internet users have been working with each other to piece together clues about the culprits of the Boston bombings. The result? They got it wrong – and left innocent people fearing for their safety. Many are now asking: should “crowd-sourced investigations” be stopped?

Thousands have been tirelessly picking through the evidence – every piece of video footage, every photo, every eyewitness account they can get their hands on.

But this investigation wasn’t within the confidential confines of the FBI or local police.

No, these sleuths were working in public – discussing their theories and “leads” within massive communities such as Reddit, 4Chan, Facebook and Twitter.

On Friday, those efforts ended with an apology. After hours of chatter and speculation, the standout suspect identified – and named – was the wrong man.

“I’d like to extend the deepest apologies to the family of Sunil Tripathi for any part we may have had in relaying what has turned out to be faulty information,” wrote Reddit user Rather_Confused.

“We cannot begin to know what you’re going through and for that we are truly sorry.

“Several users, Twitter users, and other sources had heard him identified as the suspect and believed it to be confirmed.

Sunil Tripathi Wrongly accused Sunil Tripathi, 22, has been missing since mid-March

“We were mistaken.”

‘Racist Where’s Wally’

In the preceeding hours, Mr Tripathi, who has been missing since mid-March, became a trending topic on Twitter as his name and picture were shared far and wide.

Information had been gathered on a specially created section on Reddit – known as a subreddit – entitled Find Boston Bombers.

Members had been posting their ideas and footage, offering suggestions over what they saw as crucial clues in what has been described as a crowd-sourced criminal investigation.

While undoubtedly set up with noble intentions, innocent people were routinely singled out in pictures captioned with such apparent evidence as “not looking at the race”, or because of sketchy similarities between the rucksacks being worn by onlookers and the bag that contained the bomb.

The New Statesman went as far as to call it a “racist Where’s Wally”, with the suggestion that there was emphasis on pointing out non-whites among the crowds.

One “suspect” was 17-year-old Salah Barhoun, described on Reddit simply as Blue Robe Man thanks to the tracksuit top he had worn.

Users posted information relating to his whereabouts, and pointing out the “sagging” in a shoulder bag he was holding – a sign, some thought, that he was carrying something heavy.

“Start Quote

A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours”

Family of Sunil Tripathi

Hours later, the same pictures that had circulated on Reddit and 4Chan found their way to the front page of the New York Post.

Under the headline “bag men”, Mr Barhoun and a friend were said to be wanted for questioning – but the tabloid added: “There is no direct evidence linking them to the crime.”

The pair were not involved in the bombing – and Mr Barhoun told ABC News he now fears for his life.

There were more: White Hat Black Jacket Guy, Blue Duffel Bag Guy and Green Hat Guy, to share a few.

With each suspect, a rush to find their real identities – and in some cases, social media profiles and groups were peppered with threatening messages.


When the real suspects – as confirmed by the FBI – were identified, the moderators of the Find Boston Bombers group told members that any posts about other people would be deleted immediately.

It meant much of the focus in the subreddit had shifted to the morality of what had occurred.

“This subreddit has been a disaster that has done more harm than good,” wrote Reddit user DarrenGrey.

“It ended up an epicentre of unstoppable finger-pointing and wild conjecture.

“And worst of all the mainstream media leapt on the information here like hungry hyenas.


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Reddit Wants to Help Find Missing Brown Student It ID'd as Bombing Suspect
Apr 19, 2013 2:15 PM 39,743 212

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Reddit Wants to Help Find Missing Brown Student It ID’d as Bombing Suspect

After spending the better part of last night dragging Sunil Tripathi’s name through the mud and negligently inflicting emotional distress on his friends and family, Reddit now wants to play a part in helping find the missing Brown student.

Late yesterday, Reddit began to speculate about the possibility that Sunil Tripathi — who was on leave from Brown when he was last seen in Providence, RI, on March 15th — might be one of the two Boston Marathon bomber.


It’s unclear how or why this rumor came to pass, but it ended up being furthered after the claim made a leap onto Twitter when someone claimed that the Boston Police scanner had named Tripathi as a suspect in the case.

That Tripathi’s name was ever said on the scanner is being disputed.

Whatever the timeline, by the early morning hours, Tripathi’s name was trending worldwide, and many had taken to his family’s Facebook page to leave abhorrent messages.

A few hours later, this post was published on the same page:

A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours.

We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil.

We are grateful to all of you who have followed us on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit-supporting us over the recent hours.

Now more than ever our greatest strength comes from your enduring support. We thank all of you who have reached out to our family and ask that you continue to raise awareness and to help us find our gentle, loving, and thoughtful Sunil.


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