Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.
When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September, her Wikipedia article rocketed to the top of the “Top 25 Report,” a weekly list of the most popular articles on English Wikipedia. That week, Ginsburg’s article received more than 4 million page views. But the most-trafficked English Wikipedia page for a deceased celebrity in 2020 was not that of the “Notorious RBG,” but rather an Indian movie star who was relatively unknown outside his own country.
That would be Sushant Singh Rajput, a 34-year-old Bollywood actor who died of apparent suicide by hanging on June 14. The week SSR—as he was and is known to fans—died, his page received 11.5 million page views. According to the Wikipedia volunteers who compile the Top 25 report, only five other articles have ever seen weekly page views pass the 10 million mark—those of Prince, David Bowie, Kobe Bryant, and Stephen Hawking after their deaths, and Donald Trump’s after the 2016 election.
Since mid-June, SSR’s biographical Wikipedia page and the separate article about his death have become a widely trafficked internet battleground. Editors have fiercely disputed whether Wikipedia should reflect conspiracy theories about SSR’s cause of death and if the internet encyclopedia correctly states the actor’s height. (There’s a lot riding on whether he was shorter than 6 feet.) In a time when it seems increasingly hard to agree upon the facts, Wikipedia’s response to SSR’s death shows how even good-faith attempts to document reliable information may inadvertently fuel the conspiracy theorists.
SSR was seen as an outsider, someone who had miraculously broken into the cliquey world of Indian filmmaking despite not having a famous Bollywood surname like Chopra or Kapoor. After starring in the soap opera Pavitra Rishta from 2009 to 2011, he made his film debut in Kai Po Che! in 2013. He played a cricket captain in the 2016 biopic M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, for which he was nominated for a Filmfare Award, sometimes referred to as the Hindi film industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. By all accounts, SSR was a star on the rise.
The Mumbai Police’s report in July concluded that SSR’s death was suicide by asphyxiation. But after public outcry and pressure from politicians from the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conservative political party, India’s Supreme Court ruled in August that the Central Bureau of Investigation would conduct its own investigation.
It’s hard to overstate how much Indian media has covered SSR’s death, including showing pictures of his dead body. There were weeks this summer when TV networks in India gave the Bollywood actor’s death more attention than COVID-19. As Michaela Stone Cross wrote for the Juggernaut, “The media—hollowed out by decreasing press freedom and more fake news—was releasing any information it could get its hands on, real or fake. Rajput’s face, eyes rolling, lacerations vivid, could be seen on screens all across India, and three fans killed themselves in his name.” Conservative TV hosts accused Rhea Chakraborty, SSR’s girlfriend, of being a “manipulative” woman who “performed black magic” and “drove Sushant to suicide.” There were calls to #ArrestRheaNow.
Millions of people, dubbed “SSRians,” are using social media to conduct their own research, challenge the official reports, and publicize their own version of the truth. People in the #JusticeforSushant camp have tossed out numerous conspiracy theories, including that SSR was murdered by the Bollywood mafia or that his girlfriend Chakraborty was poisoning him with medication to depress his mood.
Naturally, the controversy has spilled over to Wikipedia, creating a battle between those who think something suspicious happened and those committed to Wikipedia’s ethos. As the Wikipedia editor NedFausa recounts in detail on their user page, it started with disbelief about how quickly it was edited to reflect that he had died. I’ve written before about the process of deaditing—updating Wikipedia pages to reflect people’s deaths—and how it’s not quite as macabre as it sounds. But in the case of SSR, it appears some onlookers were primed to suspect something underhanded was going on. “The cause of his death updated @Wikipedia at 8:59 A.M. on 14th June. How is this possible” tweeted one user, who was concerned because SSR died between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. local time. How could Wikipedia be updated with information about SSR’s death a few hours before he died? But Wikipedia uses Coordinated Universal Time as opposed to Indian Standard Time. IST is equal to UTC +05:30. Accounting for the adjustment to UTC, the timing of the Wikipedia-editing corresponded perfectly with the moment that Hindi-language TV stations broke the news. Nevertheless, this simple misunderstanding led the conspiracists to conclude, in the words of NedFausa, that “Wikipedia was furtively scheming with those who murdered SSR.”
Critics have also accused Wikipedia of being the police’s co-conspirator in SSR’s posthumous shrinking. The dark theory went like this: The distance between the fan motor and his bed was 5’11”, but SSR had described his height as 6 feet (183 centimeters) in numerous interviews, leaving some to conclude that it was impossible he had killed himself. After his death, the page was updated to say that SSR was 5’ 10”. “The police are lying about his height, and wikipedia changed his height as soon as we caught onto the fact that its impossible for Sushant to have hung from the fan …” tweeted one user in July.
This led to a flurry of tweets directed to the @Wikipedia account demanding that SSR’s height be modified. But casting the blame on Wikipedia as an entity suggests a fundamental misunderstanding about how the site works, and it’s a mistake that’s certainly not limited to India. Wikipedia editors around the world create and own the content of the internet encyclopedia, not the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation based in San Francisco.
Instead, the community of volunteer editors began tussling over SSR’s height. First the information listing SSR’s height as 5’ 10” was removed by an editor because there was no source for the addition. Then someone put it back in. That’s when a volunteer administrator stepped in and removed SSR’s height permanently based on the policy that height is not typically included in a biographical article unless the person is specifically notable because of their height. (That’s why Peter Dinklage’s page lists his height, but the heights of the two actors who played his fictional siblings on Game of Thrones are not listed.) Then again, it’s worth considering what type of source would be considered reliable enough for adding information about SSR’s height. Would information about SSR’s height need to come from a traditional news publication like the Indian Express or the Hindu?
Besides the height issue, there have now been several attempts to change the cause of death on SSR’s Wikipedia page from “suicide by hanging” to “asphyxia due to hanging, manner under investigation” or the more direct term “murder.” When I reached out to Wikipedia editors who were active on the SSR pages, they emphasized the importance of citing trustworthy sources on Wikipedia rather than the tabloids. “Since the [Central Bureau of Investigation] has declined to publicise any details of the [ongoing] investigation, no reliable source has reported anything other than suicide as the cause of death,” explained the pseudonymous TA, a prolific twentysomething Wikipedia editor based in the Indian state of Karnataka.
The Wikipedia articles about SSR and his death have been locked with extended-confirmed protection for the near future. This means that only Wikipedia editors who have been active for 30 days and have at least 500 edits will be permitted to directly edit the two SSR pages. For comparison, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s page is semi-protected to prevent anonymous IP editing, a common measure when a significant amount of vandalism comes from unregistered users, but it doesn’t have this higher degree of 30/500 restriction. The argument for limiting the SSR content to more experienced contributors is that, without the protection, the productive editors would be so completely overwhelmed by the nonstop disruptive edits that they simply couldn’t keep up.
A side effect of this protection is that much of the discussion has been moved to the talk page that sits behind each article, where hundreds of passionate, mostly newbie users have chimed in to advocate for changing the cause of death from suicide to murder. From TA’s perspective, the vitriol reflects cultural challenges in India when it comes to recognizing mental health issues. TA told me via email that depression in India was sometimes perceived as a character flaw or an excuse for bad behavior. They added that they thought failure to recognize mental illness in India was one factor contributing to the conspiracy theories.
Many reports suggest that the late actor did, in fact, suffer from significant mental health challenges. The Mumbai Police report indicated that the late actor searched on Google for the terms “painless death,” “schizophrenia,” and “bipolar disorder” a few hours before he died. On Aug. 1, SSR’s therapist shared that the actor suffered from bipolar disorder, explaining in an interview that the media’s “trivialization of mental health” was one reason that she felt compelled to come forward. (The therapist has since been sued by SSR’s family for professional misconduct and breaching doctor-patient confidentiality.)
“It really rubs me the wrong way to see people downplaying his possible depression,” said Nitish Pahwa, a Slate copy editor and Bollywood film buff. “It’s a very hard time to be any prominent figure in India right now, especially in this age of hyperpolarization and [given the] pressures of being in the most prolific film industry in the world.” Pahwa noted that there were other prominent examples of tragic Bollywood deaths such as the legendary 1950s and ’60s actor and director Guru Dutt, who was known to suffer from bouts of depression and died after mixing alcohol and sleeping pills in what is thought to be his third suicide attempt.
On Saturday, a representative for the medical team assisting with the CBI’s investigation into SSR announced that they had found no evidence of struggle and concluded that his death was a suicide—reiterating the findings of the Mumbai Police. But Indian Wikipedia editors like TA don’t expect the CBI’s final announcement to make much of a difference. “The attention will probably die down,” TA wrote. “But I don’t think it is going to change the minds of people who have already come to their own conclusions.” Meanwhile, there appears to be a deep-seated public desire for revenge. SSR’s girlfriend, Chakraborty, was arrested in September for allegedly supplying small amounts of marijuana to the late actor. Although cannabis is prevalent in India, the government has enacted harsh penalties and prison sentences for its sale and consumption, and Chakraborty’s arrest was widely seen as the handiwork of right-wing BJP politicians who want to be seen as tough on crime.
Regrettably, SSR’s death has become a political wedge issue. It’s also a case study in why Wikipedia’s neutrality policy is so important. The internet encyclopedia distinguishes itself from other web resources because it strives only to include information from reliable journalistic sources. That’s the value of the project: sticking to its own boring processes even if it means the encyclopedia version is less dramatic than the tabloids. Even if it’s a more common type of sad.
Update, Oct. 13, 2020: The pronouns used to refer to Wikipedia editor TA have been updated.
If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts, you can reach out for help, by phone to the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or over text message to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 (on almost all carriers, these texts are free).