The swirling controversy over how to define the term “recession” has hit Wikipedia. After partisans engaged in a furious editing duel of the relevant pages, Wikipedia suspended most changes to the entry for “recession” as well as “business cycle.”
Depending on one’s politics, the decision represents either a last-ditch effort to preserve the site’s neutrality or a caving to ideological interests. Whichever side you are on, you should be glad the fight is being fought — and confident that it should soon blow over.
Although Wikipedia, one of the most visited sites on the Internet, repeatedly insists that its articles should never be used as the sole source for any particular fact, the site’s pages are increasingly treated as authoritative in news articles and scholarly papers alike.
The good news is that we have been down this road before. Lots of times.
Locking Wikipedia pages to prevent partisan edits is nothing new. US President Joe Biden’s entry is partly locked after repeated episodes of what the site calls vandalism. So is former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s. So is former US president Donald Trump’s page, which foes kept deleting in its entirety.
Nobody should be surprised to learn that the page designated “2021 United States Capitol Attack” is also partly locked. Fierce argument rages even over what the page should be called.
Wikipedia’s senior editors have also taken action when battles have erupted over issues other than electoral politics. In 2017, they locked Garfield’s page (the cat, not the president) after a dispute over the cartoon character’s gender exploded into a 60-hour editing war.
During Dave Gettelman’s tenure as general manager of the New York Giants, edits to his page were suspended after vandalism by angry fans, one of whom altered Gettelman’s job description to read “ruining” the team.
Also, let us not leave out the infamous episode in which Wikipedia locked the entry on the Whopper sandwich sold by Burger King after someone altered the list of ingredients to read ... well, let us not get into that.
If angry disputes and temporary suspension of editing are so common, why do we not remember them? Because they always settle down.
We know this because social scientists, fascinated by Wikipedia’s belief that we can successfully crowd-source even the most abstruse or technical knowledge, have spent years studying how the site is edited.
For example, researchers have long understood that Wikipedia edits tend to increase sharply in response to intense politicization of a current issue, as well as in response to other major social disruptions, such as an outbreak of a disease. No matter how large the initial flurry of Wikipedia alterations when an event that grabs the public’s interest, the editing patterns over time regress to the mean.
On the other hand, although editing bots on Wikipedia engage in sustained and often destructive warfare, their influence could be waning. An analysis published in April reviewed all references added to Wikipedia articles through June 2019 and found not only a large upswing in sources denoted by such identifiers as ISBN or DOI, but also that the great majority of additions were made by human beings (that is, not bots) who were registered users (that is, not anonymous).
In other words, no matter what fights are going on, the sourcing of actual facts seems to be getting better.
Yes, in Wikipedia editing as elsewhere, the Resistance lives. As the recent struggle over the definition of recession reminds us, whatever one wishes to call the opposite sentiment lives as well. The editors are volunteers. Some are experts, some are amateurs; some are calm, some are not. It is not surprising that major arguments sometimes break out, and can at times become petty and vicious.
However, this inevitable truth should not be discouraging. When knowledge is crowd-sourced, sharp disparities of viewpoint should be considered a good. A 2019 study in Nature Human Behavior said that the best Wikipedia articles often result when the editors are politically polarized — even when the articles in question are about not politics, but science.
After examining the “talk” pages (where Wikipedians argue over content) the authors found that “ideologically polarized teams engage in longer, more constructive, competitive and substantively focused but linguistically diverse debates than teams of ideological moderates.”
Hmmm. Constructive, substantive, focused debate. Where else do we find that online? Perhaps lurking in all this data is a “median editor theory” under which articles, over time, move away from extremes toward a consensus.
It is unfortunate that the dispute over what constitutes a recession has grown so heated that editing had to be suspended.
However, if history is our guide, cooler heads should soon prevail, Wikipedia’s entry is likely to settle around a relatively neutral view, and those looking for a fight would move on to the next newsy topic.
Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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