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Wikipedia froze edits to its page for “recession”, ending a frenzy of edits to the entry after the Biden administration insisted the US economy had not entered an economic downturn.
New Wikipedia users made additions this week that violated Wikipedia policies. The revisions sparked an editing war that caused registered volunteer editors to repeatedly undo edits in order to comply with site policies – which, in this case, required proper citation and no political bias.
Wikipedia’s “edit war” policy encourages editors engaged in a dispute to discuss the issue on a talk page in order to reach a consensus. The crush on new editors ignored this best practice, instead continuing to push questionable edits that forced more experienced editors to shut down the ability to edit freely.
New and unregistered users are no longer allowed to edit the page, which is currently “semi-protected” until August 3, according to Wikipedia.
Top Biden administration officials dismiss talk of recession
On Thursday, the Commerce Department said the economy contracted at an annual rate of 0.9% in the April-June quarter, marking the second straight quarter of negative GDP, or gross domestic product. A consecutive fall in GDP is seen by many as an unofficial barometer of a recession.
Days before the release of the latest numbers assessing economic health, President Biden had insisted that low unemployment, record job growth and foreign business investment signaled a strong economy.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also avoided clinging to the R-word during a recent appearance on NBC. Meet the press. Although two consecutive quarters of negative growth usually defines a recession, she said, “when you’re creating close to 400,000 jobs a month, that’s not a recession.”
The National Bureau of Economic Research says the traditional definition of a recession is “a significant decline in economic activity that spreads throughout the economy and lasts for more than a few months,” a fact noted in a July 21 White House memo that cited the NBER as the “official recession marker.”
The GDP report was expected to show a negative figure. In the days before the data was released, unregistered users bypassed Wikipedia’s editing processes to make edits that highlighted a narrow definition of recession. The changes strengthened the definition of “two consecutive quarters of negative GDP”.
These changes have proven to conflict with statements by senior Biden officials on numerous markers of economic health.
A wave of rogue Wikipedia edits contradicted administration assurances
The Wikipedia page has long offered several definitions of a recession.
But on Monday, a user added a new line to the entry’s introductory paragraph: “Economists generally consider two consecutive quarters of declining GDP to be a recession.”
This language, however, was not detailed in the body of the Wiki article, and no citations were included to support this language, regardless of platform rules. It was also a strange addition that preceded a line already included in the copy, which gave the same definition of “negative economic growth for two consecutive quarters” specifically for the UK.
It was the first adjustment in the editing dispute, says Ryan McGrady, a longtime volunteer editor at Wikipedia. He was not directly involved in the recent activity on the recession page, but has been following the controversy.
“Unregistered users repeatedly tried to increase the visibility of the ‘two consecutive quarters’ definition in a way that was not consistent with Wikipedia’s policies,” he told NPR via Twitter direct messaging. “Maybe it was an attempt to cast the administration’s statements in a negative light, or maybe it was just someone noticing that Wikipedia didn’t match what he was hearing on the news. so tried to fix it in good faith. Maybe it was even an economist who found the article insufficient. Who knows. Anyway, to say that “economists generally consider” is a general statement which required good citations to back it up per Wikipedia policy, and as with any Wikipedia article, it had to be added to the body of the article before including it at the head.”
For these reasons, in addition to citing issues of political bias, registered users rolled back the change and those like it before finally locking the page.
There have also been since-reversed revisions that — intentional or not — aligned with the Biden administration’s framing of a recession.
Wikipedia editors reach agreement
As noted by McGrady, making the same edit multiple times without first finding consensus on the talk page—a forum found in each topic post that allows editors to discuss changes— goes against the norm practiced by the community of Wikipedia editors.
It is important to “err on the side of the status quo version for contentious issues, until such a consensus emerges,” he added.
After reaching some consensus, the veteran editors of the Wikipedia Recession page chose the language to create the current version which is protected from malicious modification: “Although the definition of a recession varies between countries and researchers, two consecutive quarters of decline in a country’s real gross domestic product (real GDP) are commonly used as working definition of a recession.”
As with all Wikipedia pages, previous versions of the “recession” entry appear in the revision history.
Now, a disclaimer at the top of the page warns readers that some outlets ran an outdated version of the “recession” page “claimed to be its current state.”
“Please verify if the claims or screenshots you have seen match what is actually here,” it reads.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add key details about major changes to Wikipedia’s “recession” page. An earlier version of this story focused on Wikipedia edits that appeared to align with the Biden administration. The updated story includes mention of a Wikipedia edit made by a new user who started the edit war on the “recession” page.