Sunil Tripathi and Family. Photo credit: the Tripathi family.
Here’s the undeniable truth: Sunil didn’t do it. Sunil never had anything to do with it. Sunil is still missing, and his family and friends are still heartbroken. But last Thursday night, the Internet had already passed its verdict: Suspect #2 in the Boston Marathon bombings was definitely Sunil Tripathi, the Brown University student who disappeared from his dorm room in mid-March. The two faces just looked so much alike -- at least according to users of the website Reddit.
Asian Americans are no strangers to misidentification and its consequences. During World War 2, US citizens were instructed on how to distinguish “the Japs” from our “friends” the Chinese. In 1982, the Chinese American auto worker Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat when Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz insisted he was Japanese and had cost them their jobs. Long before 9/11, South Asian Americans have been targeted by anti-Muslim extremists. And in a more benign but no less outrageous case, just a few weeks ago in Portland, Occupy activists who organized a bike ride singled out and publically accused an Asian cyclist of being an undercover cop of Asian descent known to the activists.
While these examples are each extreme in their own ways, smaller instances of misidentification are regular features of daily life for many people of color. That brief ocular tic -- that unfocusing and refocusing of the eye when an individual either dissolves into a racial type or emerges from it -- has the power to reinforce distinctions between Americans and Others, and to inflict lasting feelings of alienation. In person, at least, there’s some incentive to get it right.
Those incentives are different on the Internet, which Lisa Nakamura has called a “racialized medium.” For example, in relation to US Internet users as a whole, white users are slightly overrepresented on Reddit, at 77%, while Asian users comprise four percent.* For contrast, consider that African Americans are significantly over-represented on Twitter and Facebook, at 17% and 13%, respectively. Reddit also skews male (55%), while Twitter and Facebook skew female (55%). None of this is even to mention the problem of the "digital divide."
How do we account for these differences? The fact is, we don’t. So, for the casual observer, race -- and difference more generally -- disappears into the heady Utopianism of cyberspace, where identities are wiped clean of the messiness of biology and history. Facts become mere facts; people, only users. It’s easy to interpret the surface absence of race, and its absence from our everyday conversations, as an indication that we’ve somehow matured as a society -- that we’ve emerged on the other end of some kind of cultural wormhole having skipped over the excruciating labor of confronting race head-on.
Alex Pareene at Salon provides the best rundown and critique of the sequence of events that led to the Tripathi allegations, but here’s a brief overview. Shortly after the FBI published photos of the two bombing suspects late last Thursday, a post appeared on Reddit by the user “pizzatime” that ran with the title: “Is missing student Sunil Tripathi Marathon Bomber #2?” It linked to a story on Huffington Post about Tripathi’s disappearance that contained photos of Tripathi, garnering instant, almost desperate, credulity from Reddit and social media users. Almost as soon as pizzatime posted, users began trumpeting the collective brilliance of crowdsourcing: “This is historic Internet sleuthing”; “REDDIT SOLVED THE BOMBING. BEFORE THE FEDS SOLVED THE BOMBING.”
A wild claim made on Reddit is likely treated like a wild claim made anywhere else, but with incidences like the misidentification of Sunil Tripathi, we stand reminded that the Internet can make things worse for those of us who have problems being perceived as individuals.
Tripathi was only the latest in a series of misidentifications that have damaged the lives of young, non-white males since last Monday’s bombings. No sooner had the first bomb exploded than a young Saudi national was tackled to the ground as he was running away from the scene, along with everyone else. He was later deemed innocent, but not before his residence was forcibly searched and his friends and roommates subjected to hours of questioning. Meanwhile, after poring over images from the Marathon, Reddit users insisted that one of the bombers was a Boston high school student and track star, Salah Eddin Barhoum. The New York Post solidified these accusations the next morning by putting Barhoum’s picture on its front page. His innocence notwithstanding, Barhoum and his family no longer feel safe going to school or work, and they will likely never fully emerge from the shadow that a few keystrokes have cast across their lives.
Clearly, what people saw in these young men’s faces were more than their features. A darker logic governed their resemblance to the second suspect: the same logic behind the template of disclaimers that commentators have been offering when describing the two real bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother Dzhokhar, 19. We don’t have enough information to reach any conclusions, this logic states, all we can do is report the facts. And the facts are that the two brothers are Chechen and Muslim.
Despite abundant prognostications to the contrary in recent days, social media will never replace journalism. Humans, after all, are no less stupid in real-time Internet venues than when they're bumbling in front of a camera or on the ground in real life. Social media just lets them be stupider faster, in front of more people, and -- here’s the thing -- with no accountability. If pizzatime gets it wrong, he doesn’t get fired. His career isn’t ruined. Reddit won’t close its doors. But he can, very casually, ruin a life.
For a few hours after the allegations against Tripathi began to coalesce, the Facebook page that Tripathi’s family set up to organize their search effort had to be taken down; social media’s minions had plastered hate messages on its wall. The page has since been restored, with a redoubled call for help. We all know that social media can be double-edged. Now we must also live with the knowledge that our misplaced trust in it quite nearly added another tragedy to last week’s already staggering tally: the failure to identify the tragedy of Sunil’s -- Sunny’s -- unsolved disappearance.
* According to the digital advertising firm Quantcast.com, 76% of US Internet users are white, 4% are Asian, and 9% are African American.