Wikipedia sees tug of war break out over its definition of ‘recession’


Wikipedia became a political battleground this past week when the website’s page for the term “recession” was repeatedly modified in response to the Biden administration’s attempt to spin poor economic numbers.

Editors took to the publicly curated online encyclopedia to either remove or emphasize the typical definition of a recession — two consecutive fiscal quarters of negative gross domestic product (GDP) growth. 

One version of the page’s definition section dated July 25 scrubbed any mention of “two negative consecutive quarters of GDP growth,” according to online news site UnHerd. 

Another version of the page’s lead section dated July 27 reportedly said: “There is no global consensus on the definition of recession.”

Site administrators eventually locked the page until Aug. 3 due to “persistent addition of unsourced or poorly sourced content” and put up a warning that the page may have been “affected by a current event,” according to multiple outlets.

The final version now says: “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.”  

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Wikipedia editor Beland said on the page’s discussion section that the site decided to highlight the “two quarter” definition more after reviewing it with “editors from a diversity of political perspectives.” 

Fellow Wikipedia editor JPxG said the “article always said something about ‘two down GDP quarters’” and the “first section of the article, titled ‘Definition,’ has mentioned it since 2011.”  

That didn’t prevent public figures from ridiculing the company, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who tweeted Friday that “Wikipedia is losing its objectivity.”

The Commerce Department reported Thursday that GDP fell by an annualized rate of 0.9% during the second quarter of the year. The first quarter saw GDP fall by a rate of 1.6%.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts, determines if the U.S. is in a recession. NBER’s own definition of recession (which is included on the Wikipedia page) is more open-ended than the “two quarter” rule.

It states that a recession is “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and that lasts more than a few months.”
President Biden and his staff have been defensive about the term recession.

“Let me speak to one other issue: the GDP, and whether or not we are in a recession. Both [Federal Reserve] Chairman [Jerome] Powell and many of the significant banking personnel and economists say we’re not in recession,” Mr. Biden said Thursday at a press conference.

He cited low unemployment rates and investments from domestic and foreign businesses in the American economy to dispute the argument that the nation is in a recession.


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