Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia way back in 2001 and in recent years has taken a more hands-off approach, avoiding disputes about what content should and should not be included on the internet encyclopedia. But on Wednesday, Wales jumped right into the fray by posting on his English Wikipedia user talk page under the heading “What I think is clearly a wrong decision.”
“We are in an embarrassing situation where a clearly notable politician who appears poised to win a seat in the US Senate doesn’t have an article—a complete failure of our mission to deliver high quality information to the world,” Wales wrote, using his Wikipedia alias Jimbo. He was referring to Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic Senate candidate in Iowa, who until late Wednesday evening did not have a Wikipedia entry because the draft version of the article had been repeatedly declined.
Polls indicate that Greenfield is the slight favorite to win her race in Iowa, and she was widely praised on social media for her performance during a debate that was distinctly Iowan in character. Greenfield was asked by the moderator to name the break-even price for a bushel of corn in Iowa. She answered the question perfectly: Corn was going for $3.68, though the break-even point depended on the farmer’s situation. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, was then asked to name the break-even price of soybeans. After hemming and hawing, Ernst guessed $5.50. The correct price was $10.05. (The Ernst campaign later said that technical difficulties kept her from hearing the question properly.)
Even if Greenfield has gained respect from Iowa’s farmers, she has until very recently not been feeling the love on Wikipedia, where she has been left out for most of the election cycle. For background, the incumbent Ernst has a Wikipedia entry. Greenfield’s opponent in the Iowa Democratic primary, retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Michael T. Franken, also has a page. Based on the circumstances, someone less familiar with Wikipedia might assume that Greenfield’s lack of page resulted from the project’s often-discussed political or gender bias. But Wales himself attributed it to something other than bias, namely, the “unfortunately disappointing failure of the slow grinding wheels of our [Wikipedia] policies.”
That delay no doubt has consequences. When voters search for candidates, Google often uses Wikipedia to populate its knowledge panels—that box that appears above links—based on Wikipedia’s relative reliability compared with other internet resources. The fact that, for so long, Greenfield did not have a Wikipedia article arguably put her at a distinct political disadvantage. Overall, the saga of how Greenfield ultimately came to have a Wikipedia entry less than two weeks before Election Day—and more than two weeks after early voting began in Iowa—shows how the internet encyclopedia can become so mired in its own bureaucratic processes that it forgets its overall mission. In fact, some contributors disagree about what that mission should even be.
A short-lived original version of Theresa Greenfield’s Wikipedia page existed for a few days in May, when Greenfield was still competing in the primary. After numerous revisions, that page was taken down in a process that is supposed to be intended for “uncontroversial deletions.” The user Puddleglum argued that “candidacy alone is not enough to establish notability,” referring to Wikipedia’s notability guideline. (Much more to come on the nuances of Wikipedia’s notability standard.) From that point, Wikipedia users who searched for Greenfield were redirected to a more generic page about the Democratic primary in Iowa.
After this early round of rejection, the draft Theresa Greenfield article had to go through a separate Wikipedia process known as Articles for Creation, or AfC, in which official article reviewers approve, decline, or reject new proposed articles based on Wikipedia policies. Most of the Wikipedians that I interviewed described the AfC process as somewhere between “extremely flawed” and “FUBAR.” Here’s a telling detail: Steven Pruitt, the most prolific contributor to English Wikipedia with more than 3 million edits thus far, spends between three and four hours per day on Wikipedia. But even he avoids the world of AfC. Writing on the Facebook group Wikipedia Weekly, Pruitt said that AfC is a “dumpster fire” in which he declines to participate because it “Keeps the muck out of my hair … or what’s left of it.”
But why is AfC so terrible? Molly White, alias GorillaWarfare, is a Wikipedia editor, administrator, and Arbitration Committee member. White explained to me that the AfC process is enormously backlogged, with not enough volunteers reviewing articles and some 3,790 currently in the queue awaiting review. Article reviewers are permitted to select from the queue the pages that they would like to judge. “Article submissions can be unilaterally declined by a single reviewer, and even if they’re resubmitted for review, they’re often reviewed again by the same person,” White wrote in an email. “That means that an unusually strict reviewer could singlehandedly prevent an article from being created, and once an AfC article is reviewed, that review is usually not audited by anyone else.”* In other words, it’s a system in which the judges can self-select their individual cases, giving reviewers a ton of (encyclopedic) power.
In this case, the AfC article reviewer Robert McClenon repeatedly declined the Theresa Greenfield article for failing to meet Wikipedia’s notability guideline. The basic principle behind the notability guideline is that Wikipedia is not intended to be a “directory of everything in the universe that exists or has existed.” Put otherwise, not everyone and their cat deserves a Wikipedia page. (Exception: Schrödinger.) The notability standard includes the general notability guideline: “If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to be suitable for a stand-alone article or list.” It seemed very clear to many Wikipedians, including Wales and White, that Greenfield satisfied the general notability guideline. After all, Greenfield has been covered by major Iowan outlets like the Des Moines Register and the Hawk Eye, as well as national outlets like USA Today and, ahem, Slate— my colleague Mary Harris discussed the second-most expensive Senate election in American history on a recent episode of her podcast What Next. Given all this press coverage, Greenfield had clearly satisfied the requirements of general notability and should be covered by a Wikipedia article! Right?
Not so fast, said other editors. They pointed to the special notability guideline for politicians, or NPOL, which states, “Just being an elected local official, or an unelected candidate for political office, does not guarantee notability, although such people can still be notable if they meet the general notability guideline.” The argument of those who repeatedly declined Greenfield’s page was that she was only a candidate for public office and should not have a Wikipedia entry until after Nov. 3—if she won her race. But notice how this argument ignores the entire second half of NPOL, the clause beginning with the word although. If the person has demonstrated general notability, then the general notability guideline supersedes any subject-specific criteria.
Over the course of several months, individual reviewers like Robert McClenon declined Theresa Greenfield’s Wikipedia entry by arguing that “the subject does not satisfy political notability.” The reviewers also claimed that Greenfield had no other basis to achieve notability, such as military service. As mentioned above, Greenfield’s opponent in the Iowa Democratic primary, Michael T. Franken, had a Wikipedia entry. The argument for Franken’s page was that he was independently notable outside of politics because he was a U.S. Navy vice admiral. There are other special types of standards, too, like athletic notability, which is why everyone on the roster of the Texas Rangers this year has a Wikipedia entry, even though they finished worst in the league. Does it make sense that it’s easier for baseball players to get Wikipedia entries than candidates for major public office?
To be clear, it’s not like Wikipedia itself is running out of space. The project has covered more trivial topics than a U.S. Senate candidate in much greater detail. (Sidebar: “A friend” told me that you can satisfy your childhood curiosity by reading the Wikipedia summaries for every single book in the Animorphs series.) Then again, even if there were space limitations, it’s still eminently clear that Greenfield had satisfied general notability because of her significant coverage in major news sources. After perusing the many attempts to quash Theresa Greenfield’s Wikipedia page, I started to wonder whether the people who were trying to prevent her from having a page were motivated by political bias.
But when I put the question to White, her answer surprised me. “I think the vast majority of people involved were arguing in good faith,” White said in an email. “The issue came down to interpretation of policy, and while I personally fell on one side of the argument, I think the other side was also coming from a reasonable place.” Another administrator explained to me that use of the word presumed in both the general and political notability guidelines allowed both sides to make case-by-case arguments. Furthermore, there was an outstanding question whether political notability was an exception to general notability or a heuristic for determining whether notability existed.
That might sound like a bunch of Wikipedia gobbledygook, yet it’s the kind of Wikipedia gobbledygook that affects candidates on both sides of the aisle. Loren Culp, the current Republican candidate for governor in Washington, does not have a Wikipedia article; his Democratic opponent, the incumbent Gov. Jay Inslee does. Once again, that’s because editors have said that candidates should not receive Wikipedia pages until they are elected to higher office. Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution, wrote on the Wikipedia Weekly Facebook group last week about the unintended side effect of the political notability policy. “It gives a distinct advantage to incumbents, as they do automatically qualify, notability-wise, for a Wikipedia article,” Lih wrote.
Already, there are murmurs among Wikipedians that reform is needed. A hypothetical new rule might state that all major candidates for significant state or federal elections would be presumed to have sufficient notability for a Wikipedia entry. This would prevent the excruciatingly long discussions about whether general notability takes precedence over political notability, while also not opening up the encyclopedia to include entries for every minor candidate in every minor election. Then again, some Wikipedians have pointed out that a rule conferring notability only to major party candidates might inadvertently serve to entrench the two-party system in the United States. Moreover, any new Wikipedia rule would also need to consider how the definition of a major party candidate would apply in non-U.S. countries that have different systems. In countries with party-list proportional representation, political parties that receive even a small percentage of the votes can still send a few candidates to the legislature.
Back to the specific drama with Theresa Greenfield: After months of being declined by the article reviewers in the AfC dumpster fire, the Wikipedia administrator Muboshgu decided to “page protect” the draft Greenfield article using the method known as salting. The term salting comes from the medieval practice of conquering a city and then “salting the earth” to curse anyone who dared to rebuild it. The goal of salting was to prevent any Greenfield page from going live before the election.
Perhaps fed up with this encyclopedic version of sorcery, the user Ivanvector appealed the salting decision to Wikipedia’s administrator’s noticeboard in late September. At this point, the floodgates opened, and many Wikipedia editors began to argue the matter. On Twitter, you often hear there’s always a tweet. The parallel concept on Wikipedia is something like there’s always a rule to cite. Or to be more specific, there’s always a pillar, principle, policy, guideline, essay, or explanatory supplement to bolster your argument. Editors debated Greenfield’s page using walls of texts that were chockful of jargony policy citations: general notability, political notability, WP:1E (notability for one event, here the election, does not automatically confer notability on the individual), “There is no deadline” (why not wait until after the election?), and the ten-year test (will this article matter in 10 years? How could you even know?). There were even legal-sounding arguments about whether Wikipedia’s administrator’s noticeboard was the right venue to decide this matter, or whether the debate must be sent back down to lower courts, in the purgatory known as AfC.
Finally, Wales himself jumped in. “Allow me to quote from black-letter written Wikipedia policy. ‘If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it,’ ” Wales wrote, quoting from the policy known simply as “Ignore all rules.” “In this case, we have this long tortured discussion about particular paths around purely procedural matters, which is preventing the movement of a perfectly valid draft,” Wales added.
To an outsider, it might seem like Wales’ opinion would have simply ended the discussion. But broadly speaking, Wikipedia editors are independent-minded and not inclined to show any special deference to the internet encyclopedia’s founder (or co-founder, as some would say). The debate continued until an administrator gleaned that there was enough consensus to rule on the matter and lifted the salt protection. Theresa Greenfield’s Wikipedia article went live on Wednesday. As of Tuesday morning, there has not yet been a serious attempt to take it down.
Two things have disturbed me while researching the saga of Greenfield’s Wikipedia entry. First, the tortuously slow process. By mid-September at the latest, there was plenty of coverage of Greenfield in major news sources. Yet certain Wikipedia power users were able to continually block the proposed entry and argue around general notability. As of now, Google is surfacing Greenfield’s new Wikipedia article in search results—something that could have happened weeks ago if not for the procedural slowdowns.
Second, I’m bothered by the deep divisions I’ve observed within the Wikipedia community about the project’s role in society. On the one hand, you have the philosophy expressed by the user Bkissin, who was against Greenfield’s page and wrote “This happens every election and it is not our role to be a voter information service.” Bkissin said that voters should instead go to Ballotpedia, even though that site is much less known. By contrast, the most prolific editor on English Wikipedia has a very different point of view. Pruitt has advocated for revisiting the notability guidelines for elections to make clear that all major candidates in major elections should have a page. “The notability rules are well and good,” wrote Pruitt on the group Wikipedia Weekly. “But they don’t take into account the fact that people see Wikipedia as a source of unbiased information, and turn to us for help when they need to make a decision.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.
Correction, Oct. 27, 2020: This article originally misquoted Molly White as saying “anymore” instead of “anyone.”