Future Tense

How a False Claim About Wikipedia Sparked a Right-Wing Media Frenzy

A pencil erases the Wikipedia Recession article
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wikipedia.

July 29, when Beyoncé’s new album dropped, was a great day for her Wikipedia article, which received more than 90,000 views. But that same day, another article, Recession, racked up more than 200,000 views, pushing it past the entries for Beyoncé, the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, World War II, and Earth—combined.

The deluge of traffic, which briefly shot the article’s popularity rank to No. 2 out of 6.5 million (No. 1 was Hunter Moore, the subject of a recent Netflix documentary), came from conservative tweets and media coverage claiming that the encyclopedia had manipulated its definition of a recession to favor the Biden administration.

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The actual story of what happened bears little resemblance to that narrative. The reality is a very typical case study of how Wikipedians modify articles in response to current events—and a clear example of how some conservatives are learning to weaponize the encyclopedia as part of a political battle to delegitimize traditional sources.

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The article was thrust into the limelight on July 28, when the Commerce Department released data showing that the U.S. gross domestic product had shrunk for a second straight quarter, meeting a common shorthand definition of a recession.

Republicans, seeking to highlight the economy’s weakness as part of a case against Democrats ahead of midterm elections this fall, jumped on the news. Although most serious economists do not accept the two quarters shorthand definition, this didn’t stop politicians like Sen. Rick Scott of Florida from declaring that “Joe Biden has officially plunged America into a recession.” The Biden administration, meanwhile, emphasized that the National Bureau of Economic Research, the body responsible for judging recession dates, had not declared one.

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In the days leading up to July 28, editors began flocking to the Wikipedia page. At the time, the article quoted from the NBER in its introduction, stating “In the United States, it [a recession] is defined as ‘a significant decline in economic activity spread across the market, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales’.” (The line was added in April 2019.) An edit war soon erupted over whether to add a phrase along the lines of “two consecutive quarters of decline in a country’s real gross domestic product is commonly used as a practical definition of a recession.” The inclusion of the phrase would benefit the Republican narrative; its omission would help Democrats.

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When a disagreement arises, editors are supposed to cease editing the contentious portion of the article and go to the article’s talk page to discuss the issue. The encyclopedia aims for content to be supported by reliable sources, so debates often focus on which option aligns best with reputable news coverage and academic research.

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A discussion was opened on the article’s talk page on July 29; it is expected to run for 30 days, after which an experienced editor will assess the community’s consensus and the article will be updated accordingly. In the interim, the “two consecutive quarters” definition remains in the live version.

A volunteer administrator applied a weak form of protection, known as “semi-protection,” to the article on July 27. Intended to prevent disruption from vandals and new editors unfamiliar with the site’s policies, it limits editing to those whose accounts are four days old and who have made at least 10 edits.

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None of this is particularly unusual. Dozens of edit wars and heated debates happen on Wikipedia every day, and thousands of articles at any given time are semi-protected, including a large proportion of high-profile or controversial topics.

“There was just this sort of general sentiment that this was a really unique situation when it wasn’t,” said Samantha Lien, a spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts Wikipedia (but does not edit its content, which is the work of volunteer contributors).

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But while Wikipedia’s editorial process kicked into gear, an entirely different process began playing out on Twitter.

The article’s edit history, taken as a whole, shows edit warring that ultimately led to the addition of the “two quarters” definition to the lead. However, editors removed it several times.

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“You can cherry-pick individual edits to create pretty much any narrative you want,” said Ryan McGrady, a Wikipedian and media researcher. “If you look at it over time, as opposed to each one of those changes, you can see that you wind up with a result that isn’t as radical as any of the individual changes.”

Screenshots of those individual edits removing the two-quarters language began circulating on Twitter, often accompanied by claims that Wikipedia was censoring its definition to align with Biden’s narrative.

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The first of these to gain significant traction came from writer Ann Bauer. Bauer’s July 27 tweet, which received more than 4,600 likes, included only a straight presentation of the revision history without attached commentary. She told me she shared it out of a general concern about “information sources being guided by politics” but that she “can’t be sure whose agenda is being pushed.”

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From there, however, the story quickly entered the right-wing media ecosystem. The Daily Wire, a conservative news site co-founded by Ben Shapiro, published an article on July 28—the day the Commerce Department released its figures—that described “repeated attempts to alter the historical definition of a recession,” meaning the “two quarters” definition, which the article did not mention had been added to the introduction as a general definition just days prior. The article’s authors did not seek comment from the Wikimedia Foundation, nor from an editor, Soibangla, who was criticized, according to those parties. (The Daily Wire did not respond to Slate’s request for comment.)

Within hours, several other conservative sites picked up the story, all thinly rewritten versions of the Daily Wire’s piece.

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On Twitter, Mike Cernovich, an alt-right personality and conspiracist with more than 1 million followers, tweeted, “Wikipedia changed the definition of recession to favor the Biden regime, and then locked the page.” Again, the page was locked only to new editors, but the tweet received more than 48,000 likes.

Wikipedians see neutrality as a core tenet of their work, and have long resisted providing any sort of commentary alongside articles apart from notices about the article itself (such as banners flagging inadequate sourcing). But in an unprecedented move, editors have placed a notice at the top of the article reading “Please visit the talk page and view the FAQ for questions about this page.” If this notice is adopted elsewhere, it would signal a shift in Wikipedia’s approach, away from letting its work speak for itself and toward a more active, transparent defense of its editorial decisions.

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The talk page FAQ, written by a Wikipedian who goes by JPxG, seeks to dispel the conservative narrative. It begins, “Hi, people from online. I’m JPxG. I agree that censorship is a cowardly chickenshit attack on the foundations of free society, that the basic principles of the open Internet are threatened by attempts to rewrite history, and all of that stuff. However, allow me to address a few things.”

“This is a political thing, which means that there’s a lot of brain fungus floating around, but I don’t think that we need to concentrate and inhale it,” JPxG told me.

The Wikimedia Foundation also helped, sending out a statement to journalists helping clarify what happened at the article.

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But the hundreds of thousands of recent visitors to the article likely represent only a fraction of those who saw the tweets and articles, and the approximately 70,000 views to the talk page FAQ represent a smaller fraction still. Explanations or corrections simply don’t go viral the way appealing falsehoods do. For many in the conservative media ecosystem, the narrative they first heard is the one that will stick, eroding their trust in one of the last bastions of shared reality.

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The major social media platforms are in a better position to intervene effectively, but they have been slow to identify false or misleading posts and hesitant to engage with them out of fear of backlash. A participant in Twitter’s crowdsourced program to fight misinformation, Birdwatch (which is modeled off of Wikipedia), flagged Cernovich’s tweet, pointing to the talk page FAQ. However, because the program is still in development, the note was shown only to other Birdwatch users.

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The next day, the story continued to spread. Libertarian venture capitalist Mike Solana tweeted, “Wikipedia is now a weapon,” and Elon Musk replied, “Wikipedia is losing its objectivity,” garnering 64,000 likes.

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Musk tagged Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, who replied, “reading too much Twitter nonsense is making you stupid,” linking to the talk page FAQ.

More traditional journalism outlets began to pick up the story, including NPR, whose article      initially reported, “In the days preceding the release of the data, revisions made to Wikipedia’s definition reflected an alignment with the Biden administration’s stance denying a recession.” (After McGrady contacted the reporter, the article was updated to add a more balanced description of the edit history.)

So, who’s right about the definition of a recession?

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It’s worth noting that Wikipedia has a global scope, so the recession article should ideally describe how the concept is interpreted around the world, not just in the U.S. Yet the article introduction currently has definitions only for the U.S. and the U.K. (which uses the “two quarters of negative growth” one).

In the U.S., the NBER has for decades been considered the authority on defining recession dates. Despite its official-sounding name, it is a private nonprofit organization, not a government entity, and its status is not written into law.

However, until now, virtually everyone has been happy to defer to it—including government agencies. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis writes in its glossary (unchanged since 2018) that “the often-cited identification of a recession with two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth is not an official designation. The designation of a recession is the province of a committee of experts at the National Bureau of Economic Research.” Benjamin M. Friedman, a Harvard economist who sat on that committee from 1978 to 1991, took issue with the line in the article’s introduction about the two quarters definition. “I don’t know any serious economist who would accept that,” he said.

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This isn’t the first time viral screenshots have caused trouble for Wikipedia.

In April 2020, after Donald Trump falsely suggested that ultraviolet light might help cure COVID-19, a screenshot circulated on Facebook of what looked like a Wikipedia article introduction for blood irradiation therapy, claiming that it “exposes the blood to light to heighten the body’s immune response.” The text was actually pulled by Google from the website of the Riordan Clinic in Kansas, which has been warned by the Federal Trade Commission for spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

Screenshots of vandalized Wikipedia articles, even when reverted within minutes, often have a much longer afterlife in news reports and on social media, creating the public impression that the platform is more vulnerable to abuse than it actually is.

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Although many conservatives have long used attacks on traditional, fact-based media to engage their audience and push them to extremist sources, they have not generally attacked Wikipedia as extensively. Right-wing commentators have grumbled about the site’s purported left-wing bias for years, but they have been unable to offer a viable alternative encyclopedia option: A conservative version of Wikipedia, Conservapedia, has long floundered with minimal readership.

Wikipedia is no stranger to controversial topics—when you’re covering every one of the world’s most heated subjects, it’s hard to play it safe. But it’s not as used to finding its own editorial processes at the center of attention, and this incident shows that it can have trouble communicating their complexities to outsiders.

As polarization has increased, the number of sources trusted by both the left and the right as neutral authorities has shrunk. If Wikipedia were like Facebook or Twitter, there would be not one main page on recessions but many, each defining it in a way algorithmically targeted to appeal to you to get you to engage (and reinforcing your beliefs, driving further division). Still, Wikipedia stubbornly insists on presenting a single, shared version of reality for all readers on a given topic. And that makes every topic a potential battleground.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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