What happens when a convicted murderer edits Wikipedia?

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Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 4:29 AM

Nor does he deny being “the right-hand man” of the cult boss and killer Charles Manson. But Watson, still serving a life duration in Ione, California, does reportedly wish to set the record straight on a couple of scores: Latest week, someone claiming to be the 70-year-old convict submitted a list of meticulous corrections to Wikipedia.

What happens when a convicted murderer edits Wikipedia?

Charles Watson, convicted of seven first-degree murders in one thousand nine hundred seventy-first, doesn't dispute that he stabbed, shot and mutilated several people to death. Nor does he deny being “the right-hand man” of the cult boss and killer Charles Manson.

But Watson, still serving a life duration in Ione, California, does reportedly wish to set the record straight on a couple of scores: Latest week, someone claiming to be the 70-year-old convict submitted a list of meticulous corrections to Wikipedia.

Among other things, the person claiming to be Watson disputes that he took $70 from one of his victim’s purses, or that he ever went by the nickname “Mad Charlie.” He also wants the world to know he attended Cal State, not the Univ of California – and that, four years after his notorious killing spree, he converted to Christianity.

The requests, which were made on a print-out duplicate of Watson’s Wikipedia page dated Feb. sixteen, reached Wikipedia via a little-known process that lets non-editors propose changes to the site. Watson’s request was processed on Thursday when a volunteer well-known it in the discussion thread on his page, and became public earlier this week when it was reported by the Wikipedia look blog The Wikipedian.

We should note up front that it’s not one hundred % clear whether Watson actually made the requests: Wikipedia’s rules on verifying identity in such cases are highly flexible, and repeated calls to Watson’s foundation, Abounding Like Ministries, were not answered.

Lane Rasberry, the Wikipedia volunteer who processed the request, said the message arrived at Wikipedia via a volunteer-run transmission service that helps inmates communicate with the exterior world. Rasberry says that he was personally convinced the intermediary was genuine, and that he did provide, in response to Rasberry’s request, a signed valid statement asserting both that the handwritten edits came from Watson and that he’d given Wikipedia permission to upload and publish them.

That seems to have satisfied Wikipedia editors, who quickly jumped on several of the suggested changes. It’s also provoked fascinating discussion about the merits of involving socially stigmatized groups love prison inmates in the Wikipedia knowledge-making machine.

In a widely circulated blog post on the subject, Rasberry – who's also the Wikipedian-in-residence for Consumer Reports – makes a powerful case for doing so: After all, Wikipedia’s core philosophy values information distant over the anonymous crowd of people actually writing it. In Watson’s case, the edits were well-sourced and meticulous. As a result of his (or his impersonator’s) notes, editors acknowledged that the page lacked citations to dependable sources and flagged it for further revision.

“There is lore in the community of reference work developers,” Rasberry wrote, “that it's best to accept excellent contributions from any source.”

The nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation has certainly devoted a lot of money and effort to diversifying those sources. In this year’s grant cycle alone, the foundation has funded projects to encourage women, senior citizens, adults with disabilities, and people in the developing world to contribute to it more. But neither Rasberry nor William Beutler, the publisher of the Wikipedian, recalls ever hearing of a project or proposal that'd specifically encourage prison inmates to become Wikipedia editors – that in spite of a proliferation of programs and services that assistance inmates send emails or write blogs, for instance.

Whether the Watson incident inspires more activism along these lines remains to be seen. But Rasberry, for one, seems open to the possibility.

He cites the legend of W. C. Minor, widely recognized as one of the most prolific and valuable contributors to the early Oxford English Dictionary. Minor shot and killed a man in one thousand eight hundred seventy-first – and made most of his contributions to the English speech from the interior of an insane asylum.

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