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What is a recession? Wikipedia can't decide

Wikipedia has locked its page for "recession," setting restrictions on who can edit the entry until next week. The freeze was set after editors made a series of revisions to the definition of "recession."
Pavlo Gonchar
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SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wikipedia has locked its page for "recession," setting restrictions on who can edit the entry until next week. The freeze was set after editors made a series of revisions to the definition of "recession."

Updated July 30, 2022 at 8:10 PM ET

Wikipedia has frozen edits to its page for "recession," halting a frenzy of changes to the entry after the Biden administration insisted that the U.S. economy has not entered a economic downturn.

New Wikipedia users made additions this week that violated Wikipedia policies. The revisions set off an editing war that drove registered volunteer editors to repeatedly revert changes in order to comply with the site's policies — which, in this case, required proper citation and no political bias.

The Wikipedia policy for "edit warring" encourages editors engaged in a dispute to discuss the issue on a discussion page in order to reach a consensus. The crush of new editors didn't heed that best practice, instead continuing to push dubious edits that forced more experienced editors to shut down the ability to freely edit.

New and unregistered users are no longer allowed to edit the page, which is currently "semi-protected" until Aug. 3, according to Wikipedia.

Top Biden administration officials dismiss recession talk

On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that the economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.9% in April-June quarter, marking the second consecutive quarter of negative GDP, or gross domestic product. A back-to-back drop in GDP is considered by many to be an unofficial barometer for a recession.

Days ahead of the release of the latest numbers gauging economic health, President Biden had insisted that low unemployment numbers, record job growth and foreign business investment signaled a strong economy.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also avoided clinging to the R-word in a recent appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. Although two consecutive quarters of negative growth generally defines a recession, she said, "When you're creating almost 400,000 jobs a month, that is not a recession."

The National Bureau of Economic Research says the traditional definition of a recession is "a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and that lasts more than a few months," a fact noted in a July 21 memo from the White House that cited the NBER as the "official recession scorekeeper."

The GDP report had been expected to show a negative number. In the days preceding the release of the data, unregistered users skirted Wikipedia's editing processes to make changes that highlighted a narrowed definition of recession. The changes played up the "two consecutive quarters of negative GDP" definition.

Those edits happened to conflict with top Biden officials' statements on the many markers of economic health.

A flurry of rogue Wikipedia edits contradicted administration assurances

The Wikipedia page has long offered multiple definitions for a recession.

But on Monday, a user added a new line to the introductory paragraph of the entry: "Economists typically consider two consecutive quarters of falling GDP a recession."

That language, however, was not detailed in the body of the Wiki article, and no citation was included to support that language, disregarding the platform's rules. It was also a strange addition that preceded a line already included in the copy, which gave the same "negative economic growth for two consecutive quarters" definition specifically for the United Kingdom.

It was the first tweak in the editing dispute, says Ryan McGrady, a longtime volunteer Wikipedia editor. He was not directly involved in the recent activity on the recession page, but has been following the controversy.

"Unregistered users repeatedly tried to elevate the visibility of the 'two consecutive quarters' definition in ways that weren't compatible with Wikipedia's policies," he told NPR over Twitter direct messaging. "Maybe it was an attempt to frame the administration's statements in a negative light, or maybe it was just someone who noticed Wikipedia didn't match what they were 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. Regardless, saying 'economists typically consider' is a broad claim that needed good citations to back it up per Wikipedia policy, and as with any Wikipedia article, it needed to be added to the body of the article before including in the lead."

For those reasons, in addition to citing issues of political bias, registered users reverted the change and those similar to it before ultimately locking the page.

There were also since-reverted revisions made that — intentional or not — aligned with the Biden administration's framing of a recession.

Wikipedia editors find an agreement

As McGrady noted, making the same edit multiple times without first finding consensus on the Talk page — a forum found within each topic article that allows editors to discuss changes — goes against the norm practiced by the Wikipedia editing community.

It's important to "err on the side of the status quo version for contentious topics, until such a consensus emerges," he added.

After reaching some consensus, seasoned editors on the Wikipedia recession page settled on language to create the current version that is protected from rogue edits: "Although the definition of a recession varies between different countries and scholars, two consecutive quarters of decline in a country's real gross domestic product (real GDP) is commonly used as a practical definition of a recession."

As with all Wikipedia pages, previous versions of the "recession" entry show up in the revision history.

Now, a disclaimer heading the page warns readers that some media outlets have circulated an outdated version of the "recession" page "claimed to be its current state."

"Please check if claims or screenshots you've seen are consistent with what's actually here," it reads.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to add key details about the major edits made to Wikipedia's page for "recession." A previous version of this story focused on the Wikipedia edits that appeared to align with the Biden administration. The updated story includes the mention of a Wikipedia edit made by a new user that kicked off the editing war on the "recession" page.

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