Sunil Tripathi, a young student of the prestigious Brown University in the United States, went missing a month ago. No one knows why. His family and friends even made a video for him to return. That video went viral on Friday after Tripathi’s name was dragged into the sordid affair of the Boston Marathon bombing as “Suspect No 2”.
How did he become Suspect No 2? It all started after some people on Reddit, the world’s most popular online sharing and discussion forum, spoke about the picture released by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and how it looked similar to Tripathi’s image.
Soon, Twitter and Facebook (and broadcast media) were all over it. From a probably depressed 20-year-old, Tripathi was now the world’s most wanted suspect. It later turned out that it was not Tripathi after all. But the damage was done. Social media had destroyed the lives of the Tripathi family, already in trauma due to their son going missing.
During any crisis event, votaries of social media have lambasted mainstream media (rightly so, on many occasions) for jumping to bizarre conclusions, naming suspects with impunity, holding a trial by media, etc. What the events in Massachusetts on Friday showed is that social media is not far behind.
Mob mentality rules on Twitter and Facebook (and Reddit) where mere speculation is treated as confirmation. No editorial filters are put in place as individual tweeters can pretty much say anything they want without the fear of a backlash. Journalism is not an easy profession, despite what you get to hear on social media. The events in the US on Friday are proof enough.