The story begins with speculation on Twitter and Reddit that a missing Brown student, Sunil Tripathi, was one of the bombers. One person who went to high school with him thought she recognized him in the surveillance photographs. People compared photos they could find of him to the surveillance photos released by the FBI.An effort to crowdsource identification of the suspects was what the FBI intended by releasing the pictures; false leads are an unfortunate but expected side effect, so I don't think condemnation of those efforts could possibly be appropriate. But the name spread like wildfire, with many, many people jumping to the conclusion that that name was the correct one. Worse, twitterers also seem to have made a critical misstep during the night, whether accidental or intentional, with claims that Tripathi and another name had been positively identified over police scanners when it wasn't clear if one name had any relation to the bombing, and as for the other:
The only problem is that there is no mention of Sunil Tripathi in the audio preceding [that] tweet. I've listened to it a dozen times and there's nothing there even remotely resembling Tripathi's name. […] Multiple groups of people have been crowdsourcing logs of the police scanner chatter and none of them have found a reference to Tripathi, either. It's just not there.Nonetheless, those tweets were widely rebroadcast. Alexis Madrigal takes the story from there. It's not pretty.
In addition to being a horrible thing to do to family members who are still desperately seeking Tripathi, the missing student, even forcing them to remove an online page begging for help in the search, is it possible the viral misidentification had an effect on the ongoing search for the actual suspects? It's not clear, but we already know that at least one person who thought they recognized one of the two bombing suspects in the FBI-released pictures assumed she was mistaken because she had already heard the name "Tripathi" floating around:
"The scary thing is yes. This is actually the same reaction that a lot of people i went to high school had. We recognized him. […] I said wow, that looks just like Jahar, but everyone was identifying him at that time saying that he was the missing guy from Brown, so we all just assumed that it was just a coincidence and I went back to bed. And then I woke up and the scary thing is that was true. It was Jahar.It's very likely that the FBI already had the correct names at that point, given how quickly afterwards the two were publicly identified. Still, it's yet another cautionary tale for would-be sleuths and reporters alike; getting the information right is infinitely more important than getting the information first. Given the amount of false or unconfirmed information flying around right now, keeping that caution is especially important.