Documentary channel

Film on Indian-American 'Boston bomber' reveals the power for misuse of social media

Neal Broffman’s film investigates the unfortunate linking of the Sunil Tripathi's disappearance with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi weaves together two tragedies, one of a country and the other of a family. Neal Broffman’s 75-minute documentary, which will be shown at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, is about Brown University student Sunil Tripathi who went missing a month before the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013. One of three children of Akhil and Judy Tripathi, Sunil had been depressed.

Even as his parents, sister Sangeeta and brother Ravi mounted a campaign through social networking sites to find him, Sunil’s name was mentioned as a possible suspect immediately after the attacks without any real evidence. The same social media that provided the comfort of strangers to the Tripathis became their enemy, accusing them of being traitors and terrorists and claiming that they orchestrated Sunil’s disappearance.



The evidence to link Sunil to the bombings was remarkably flimsy. The documentary serves as a cautionary tale about the perils of instant judgement that forums such as Reddit encourage. Among other things, Broffman explores the phenomenon of what one commentator terms “modern digital witch-hunting”. A “virtual mob mentality”, as Ravi puts it, links a personal loss with a nation’s. Broffman notes at the end of the film that “none of the journalists, social media editors and bloggers who spread the misinformation” about Sunil were willing to be interviewed on camera. Broffman, a former CNN journalist and photographer who also shot and edited the documentary, spoke to Scroll.in  about why he made the documentary and his thoughts on the power and misuse of social media in an environment of instant news gathering and  uncontrollable opinion-mongering.

What was the starting point for your journey into the lives of the Tripathis?
In early March, 2013 Elisa [the executive producer] and I were working in Africa producing a series of stories around global health. Sangeeta Tripathi was working for our client and she was on the trip. We returned to the US on March 15 and Sangeeta returned on March 16.  The next day, March 17, was when the family learned that Sunil had gone missing.

About a week later Sangeeta asked if I would cut together a short video from clips they had filmed in Providence of family and friends making direct appeals to Sunil to come home. As I sat in my office late that night editing, I was moved to tears when I watched Judy Tripathi tell Sunil that she missed him. The exhaustion and emotion that came across was intense and deeply sincere. Sangeeta uploaded the video to Youtube and put it on their Facebook page in the hope that Sunil would see it.

The weeks went by and on Monday April 15, the Boston Marathon was bombed. Four days later, Friday the 19, I woke up and checked my email and received a very strange note from somebody I did not know. The email told me to go suck on a shotgun with my terrorist friends.

I went online and saw that the night before Sunil had been accused of being Suspect #2 in the bombing of the marathon. I thought about the email I had received and I likened it to a puff of breeze at the farthest edges of what must have been a hurricane of attack and accusation at the centre of which stood the Tripathi family.

The following week when Sunil was found the same press that had falsely accused Sunil of being the bomber as well as others in the mainstream press reported that his body had been found. They identified him as the young man falsely accused of being a suspect in the bombing ‒ using the reporting of an unsourced, unverified, false and defaming story as a headline in the story that he had been found. As a journalist I just found this profoundly disturbing and as a friend it seemed so unfair to subject this family and Sunil’s legacy to an irresponsible press and a trail of accusation scattered across the internet. I spoke with the Tripathis and asked their permission to make a film about what had happened and they agreed to participate.

Did the family need any persuasion to talk about Sunil's depression?
On the contrary. The family wanted to talk about Sunil’s depression ‒  to help other families and to remind people to look out for one another. Talking about what Sunil went through and his story was not easy for them but they had trust, and this trust is what allowed them to share what happened with such intimacy.

The family is remarkably dignified despite all that happens with them.
To this day I am moved by their courage and strength. The Tripathis are a remarkable family and incredibly close. But when we talk about what happened to them we have to be careful to understand what, in fact, happened.  They lost their son and brother. The noise of the internet pales in comparison to that loss. Sunil’s death is the ongoing source of pain from which they still struggle to come to terms. It is for us, as a society, to come to terms with how they were attacked online and how journalists spread those attacks to an even wider audience. This should be an ongoing conversation.

Is digital witch-hunting an increasingly common occurrence?
When particularly offensive and hurtful attacks take place online there are always people advocating kindness and caution. There is great awareness about the dangers of on-line bullying, also. Unfortunately, though, the speed with which information can be passed around is such that I don’t think we will see mob mentality disappear anytime soon.

But there is one place where we can demand that there be accountability. That is with the press. Just because information is fast and cheap does not mean it has to be inaccurate. It is painful to watch journalists discard the very rules that insure the information they spread is reliable for the sake of being first. Hiding behind “re-tweets are not endorsements” is a cop-out and it is dangerous. As long as the newsrooms demand speed over accuracy we as a society will lose.

And when there is no accountability, when journalists delete their past tweets to cover their tracks and refuse to own up to their mistakes the likelihood for this behaviour to continue increases. It’s up to us to demand more from journalists and it is up to us to demand civility in our discourse. Is this a particularly American phenomenon? How can we know? The attacks on Sunil did not take place in a physical location, they took place in cyberspace.

One of the grounds for attack was Sunil’s part-Indian heritage, indicating that race and ethnicity continue to dog America despite its multi-cultural nature.
Sadly, this was the case then, it was the case before and it continues to be the case. Each day in the news, online, from politicians who choose to prey upon our differences and use them to their advantage, from radio talk show hosts to TV pundits to bloggers, we cannot escape the continued persistence of pointing fingers at “them” – those who came to this country to find a better life – and to find scapegoats for whatever the perceived problem of the moment is.


Neal Broffman.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

Play

This article was produced on behalf of Aegon Life by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.