*DNA : Mumbai blasts: Ajmal Kasab's birthday confusion*

*As Mumbai reeled under shock, despair and anger over being attacked again
on July 13, a message started clogging the jammed telephone networks and set
the internet on fire. Though other information — another blast in Navi
Mumbai, suspicious bag found in Santa Cruz — was also flying thick and fast,
this one had the potential to spill mass anger onto the streets.

The blasts were apparently a ‘birthday gift’ for convicted 26/11 terrorist
Ajmal Kasab, it said, and no less than Wikipedia said so.

The user-generated online encyclopaedia insists on verifibility, says Tinu
Cherian, a Bangalore-based Wikipedia administrator: “It is all about
verifiability, not necessarily of the truth, but whether readers and editors
can check that the material has been published by a reliable source, and not
whether they think it is true.” the resource has become a definitive go-to
for unbiased information.

But on that fateful Wednesday, verifiability itself was the problem. Three
sources — Indian Express (2009), IBNLive (2009) and Hindustan Times (2010)
had mentioned Kasab’s date of birth (DoB) as September 13, 1987, while two —
The Times of India (February 2011), The Hindu (2008) said it was on July 13
that year.

The entry on Kasab was created on November 29, 2008, three days after the
attacks, and since December that year, his DoB has been mentioned as July

No wonder then that when a Chennai-based user changed it to September 22 at
8.18pm (the last blast occurred at 7.05pm), there was consternation among
Wikipedians, and minutes later, an ‘edit war’ as the community calls such
rapid changes, had begun. Unable to verify the date, an administrator locked
the page.

Wikipedians say such problems are not uncommon, two recent cases being the
rumour that freedom fighter Bhagat Singh was born on Valentine’s Day
(February 14), and premature reports that West Bengal chief minister had
died. Though there is no laid-down code, and no one in particular monitors
changes to the database, the loosely organised community says it
self-regulates and decisions are arrived at on case-to-case basis and
actions depend on creating consensus.

Soon after the edit war, a group of Wikipedians went into a huddle on the
‘Talk’ page of the website. Among them was Utkarsh Raj Atmaram, a
27-year-old Wikipedia administrator from Hyderabad.

Though he too had learnt about the controversy on Twitter, he was initially
circumspect about the real date being July 13. However, when he checked the
revision history of the article, he realised the truth was at best a shade
of grey.

“Though the DoB had always been July 13, somewhere down the line the
reference was deleted. This fuelled the confusion further,” Atmaram says.

A Washington Post blog later attributed a part of this confusion to: “Those
who are making the Wikipedia entry changes [to September 13] are trying to
delegitimise the terrorists behind the attack.”

It was finally decided at 11.26pm that both the dates should be reflected
after one contributor, ‘kangzan’,pointed out: “Right now Kasab’s birthday is
both in September and in July at the same time, exactly like Schrodinger’s
hypothetical cat is both dead and alive at the same time — a thought
experiment used to illustrate physics’ aptly named uncertainty principle”.
Later, when Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad chief Rakesh Maria confirmed
the date to be September 13, the issue was laid to rest.

The incident highlights the fragile nature of ‘truth’ on the internet —
Wikipedia doesn’t know something happened until a credible source doesn’t
ratify it. “That is why, even though Twitter can be ahead of us in breaking
news, we do not create articles based on what is said there,” Atmaram says.
Perhaps that is why Kasab’s birth date being mentioned as July 13 on
Wikipedia created such a furoreas people trust its content more than even
conventional sources of information.

The flip side, however, especially in countries like India where only a
fraction of government records are online, is a lot of information does not
meet the encyclopaedia’s ‘notability factor’, which determines whether
particular information can be added to the database. To circumvent the
problem, Wikipedians in India are experimenting with a novel idea.

“We have started using oral citations for non-controversial content. A
tayyam dance form has been documented using such citations of proponents,”
says Cherian, who is also at the forefront of creating Wikipedia content in
Indian languages.

As the dust settles on the debate, one thing is clear: Information wars of
the future will be fought online, and in crises, what transpires between
netizens will shape reality on the ground.*

Tinu Cherian
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