It’s not just President Joe Biden’s team that’s changing the definition of a recession, it seems. Now, even Wikipedia is getting in on it.
Just days after the White House insisted that the traditional definition of two straight quarters of negative economic growth wasn’t “holistic” enough — and one day before the United States reported two straight quarters of negative economic growth — editors at the world’s most prominent outlet for open-source general knowledge followed suit.
On July 27, a blue checkmark Twitter account which offers news on commodities markets noted, this line got added: “There is no global consensus on the definition of a recession.”
That was enough to get Elon Musk involved, with the Tesla and SpaceX CEO calling out Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales for a loss of “objectivity” at the site — an accusation which prompted an angry response from Wales.
Here’s the change in question, which just happened to come about as the White House was busy redfining what a recession entailed:
Wikipedia has changed the definition of recession.
Wayback’s last capture was July 11, 2022.
Based on Wiki’s changelog, the line: “There is no global consensus on the definition of a recession” was added on July 27.
The page is now locked. pic.twitter.com/6tx1vPHEPM
— unusual_whales (@unusual_whales) July 28, 2022
For those unfamiliar with how Wikipedia works, it’s an encyclopedia, which can be edited by anyone. That makes it both a) useful and b) not something college students would do well to cite on their term papers.
The open-source nature of the platform explains why the article on the vulgar, forgettable Comedy Central animated reality-show spoof “Drawn Together” — which aired for three seasons in the early 2000s and drew a cult audience — is considerably longer than the article on noted American literary and political scholar Lionel Trilling.
That said, drier topics like the term “recession” aren’t usually subject to the vicissitudes of Wikipedia’s fringe content. Moreover, it’s not a concept that’s changed much. And then there’s the cherished Wikipedia value of writing or editing with an “NPOV” — neutral point of view. Spend two minutes with people who take Wikipedia editing seriously — and sadly, I’ve whittled away more of my time on this vial of tears with Wikipedia editors than that — and you’ll become very familiar with the acronym and how sacrosanct it is to Wikipedians in theory, even if it hardly works out in practice.
Which makes the timing of the change to the recession article odd, to say the least, because the addition of the line about “no global consensus” regarding the definition of a recession came just as the Biden administration was conducting an all-out blitz to convince us that there wasn’t a global consensus regarding what a recession was.
White House Economic Advisor, Brian Christopher Dees has said:
Two negative quarters of GDP growth is not the technical definition of recession. It is not the definition economists have relied on. pic.twitter.com/4gRFIJKvyQ
— unusual_whales (@unusual_whales) July 26, 2022
Janet Yellen redefining the word “Recession”. Basically moving the goalposts! pic.twitter.com/Z5PfGpuXlb
— TickedOffOfLibs (@TickedOffOfLibs) July 26, 2022
Jean-Pierre is asked what exactly is the White House’s definition of a recession:
“Again, we don’t—I’m not going to define it from here.” pic.twitter.com/ACfdZOPueq
— The Post Millennial (@TPostMillennial) July 25, 2022
That change seems pretty transparent in its aim. To be fair, Wikipedia is also pretty transparent in how and when content is changed, which is why we can see exactly when the change happened.
In an edit made in the late hours of July 26 U.S. time, a user added this to the first paragraph of the page: “While national definitions may vary, ‘Most commentators and analysts use, as a practical definition of recession, two consecutive quarters of decline in a country’s real (inflation adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP)…'” and linked to an International Monetary Fund publication.
Then, on the afternoon of July 27, another editor deleted that and added the paragraph about there being “no global consensus” regarding what a recession was. To explain why they deleted the previously added definition of a recession, the editor left the comment, “‘commentators and analysts?’ how about economists?”
While the phraseology may have been poor, it’s worth noting that paragraph linked to an IMF publication — the IMF being an organization not known for a shortage of economists in its employ.
There was, needless to say, plenty of social media attention given to this particular edit:
“Inflation is Prosperity.
Recession is growth.
Shortage is Abundance” pic.twitter.com/rE9bFXIyZJ
— Coinbits | DCA into bitcoin (@CoinbitsApp) July 28, 2022
wikipedia is now a weapon
— Mike Solana (@micsolana) July 28, 2022
And here’s where Musk got involved:
Wikipedia is losing its objectivity @jimmy_wales
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 29, 2022
“Wikipedia is losing its objectivity @jimmy_wales,” Musk tweeted — calling out Wales, the most prominent of Wikipedia’s co-founders.
Wales didn’t like this. In a response, he linked Musk to the “Talk” page on the recession article — where debate about edits is confined to — and had this rejoinder: “Reading too much Twitter nonsense is making you stupid. Call me next week if you want a real discussion.”
Elon kindly take a moment to read this: https://t.co/8MydQ8SNyW
Reading too much Twitter nonsense is making you stupid. Call me next week if you want a real discussion. @elonmusk
— Jimmy Wales (@jimmy_wales) July 29, 2022
The “Talk” page provided a preemptive defense for the article’s editors at the top, noting that the “no global consensus” paragraph “wasn’t there for very long to begin with” and “screenshots of the stuff getting removed are out of date.” Editors seem to have settled on this TL;DR explanation in the second paragraph of the current article: “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.”
And then there’s this: “If you are here to complain Wikipedia changed the definition to favor the Biden administration, please don’t, because 1.) the article has mentioned both the ‘two quarter’ and NBER definitions for years, and that hasn’t changed recently, 2.) after discussion by editors from a diversity of political perspectives, the introduction has actually been changed so it emphasizes the ‘two quarter’ definition a little more, which we expect you will find satisfactorily neutral.”
Except Wikipedia has a long history of not being “satisfactorily neutral.”
Consider a 2018 kerfuffle where a Wikipedia page that associated the ideology of the California Republican Party with “Nazism” showed up on Google searches. Also that year, Wikipedia editors fought tooth-and-nail to avoid any mention of anti-white racist tweets by newly appointed New York Times editorial board member Sarah Jeong on her article.
At the time, it was literally the only reason anyone was visiting Jeong’s Wikipedia page, and the tweets — which were both ugly in their naked bigotry and not terribly old in their provenance — were fairly important background information for anyone reading about her body of work. Yet, here’s what one editor said: “By including the text of the tweets in our bio of Jeong, we would clearly just be doing the trolls’ work for them, in clear contradiction to (avoid victimization).”
Even Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has called the platform out for its bias, particularly on articles dealing with socialism and communism, telling Just the News it was pushing “propaganda” on users.
“[T]hey’re going to find an explanation that completely ignores any conservative, libertarian or critical treatment of the subject … And that’s really problematic. That’s not education. That’s propaganda,” he said in 2021.
This came after Fox News found the “main pages for ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ span a massive 28,000 words, and yet they contain no discussion of the genocides committed by socialist and communist regimes, in which tens of millions of people were murdered and starved.”
Apparently, “no global consensus” had been reached on Stalin or Mao.
Also, don’t try searching “Rosemont Seneca Partners” on Wikipedia. That’s the name of Hunter Biden’s old firm, which was deleted because editors said it was “not notable” and a “magnet” for conspiracy theories.
Yes, that silly line was deleted after a few days — but it was only added because of the Biden administration’s furious scramble to redefine a defined term, and it underlined a bigger problem with Wikipedia.
Say what you will about Elon Musk, this isn’t a case where “too much Twitter nonsense is making [him] stupid.”
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