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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The Senate Race That Could be Pivotal for America—and Wikipedia

Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa is notable for a number of reasons. For one thing, she is among the most conservative Republicans in the US Senate. For another, control of the Senate could hinge on whether she gets reelected on November 3. After beginning the year safely ahead in the polls, Ernst now finds herself neck and neck with a political newcomer named Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic candidate. According to FiveThirtyEight, their race is notable for being the closest Senate contest in the nation, one of a small handful that could tilt the body toward Democratic control—which would, in turn, drastically shift the political fortunes of the next presidency.


But somehow, until very recently, none of that conferred any notability on Greenfield—at least, not as defined by the internet's most important source of information. For nearly all of the 2020 election season, Greenfield has had no page on Wikipedia, which grants entries only to people who pass a certain threshold of noteworthiness. Greenfield, according to some of the more powerful editors on the site, didn’t make the cut.

Wikipedia is the sixth-most visited website in the United States. Owing in part to its reputation for evenhandedness, and the way it conveniently bundles sources for readers, Wikipedia has played a growing role in American politics, too. It is not unusual for Senate candidates—including many of the high-profile candidates running right now—to see several thousand visits to their page on any given day.

Among those to receive this Wikipedia boost in the past was a candidate named Joni Ernst, whose page received 13,000 views just before Election Day in 2014. Today, Ernst’s Wikipedia page offers a lengthy biography—which describes her childhood origins, her Tea Party rise in 2014, and her inventory of proposed bills—that spans more than 5,000 words and 28 sections.

During the past several months, while Ernst and Greenfield debated each other (and gave us viral clips about the break-even price of corn and soybeans), a separate debate raged among Wikipedia’s volunteer editors about Greenfield’s eligibility for a page of her own. Beginning in June, a working draft of her Wikipedia entry sat in limbo for months; as the election season intensified, its discussion threads transformed into something resembling a battle zone. By October, even as Wikipedia was locking articles and taking other preventative steps to stop misinformation about the election, political Wikipedia was going to war with itself over a case of missing information about the election—and whether it was misleading voters by omission. The debate over Greenfield eventually grew so heated that Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s mercurial founder, personally got involved.

Much as Iowa’s race could have outsize implications for American politics, the spat over Greenfield has cued up major questions about Wikipedia’s complicated stance toward political candidates—as well as its freighted history with female representation, on a site where male public figures are less often challenged for their notability, and most of the site’s editors are men. Some elite editors have already begun to give the controversy a name: the Greenfield Problem.

Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia’s founding promise—to create an encyclopedia that could be edited by anyone and everyone, a living document of world culture—has always run up against a countervailing current of elitism. Underneath its gleaming promise of public scholarship, Wikipedia is a community that teems with its own authorities and cognoscenti, with all the high-handedness, Byzantine bylaws, and amour propre of any cultural institution on Fifth Avenue. “The popular knock on Wikipedia is that anyone can change anything,” says Andrew Lih, a professor and author of Wikipedia history, who spoke to WIRED to describe the Greenfield fracas. “But once you start getting in the weeds, you realize there’s tons of policies, tons of processes, and tons of bureaucracy.”

Beginning in 2019, as Iowa’s primary candidates launched their election campaigns, visitors to Wikipedia who searched for information on Greenfield were sent—via what’s called a “redirect”—to a generic article about the state’s 2020 elections. When Greenfield won the Democratic primary in June, some volunteer editors began agitating for her to have an individual page. That month, one person briefly and unilaterally published such a page for Greenfield, citing “very significant national coverage” for her campaign as evidence for her notability.

In response, an administrator known by the handle Muboshgu put down that small rebellion with an unusual move: Muboshgu permanently locked Greenfield’s page in a redirect, with only administrators—some of the highest authorities on Wikipedia—allowed to unlock it.

Thus began the skirmish: From then on, users would have to submit Greenfield’s page to a review process, called Articles for Creation. Between July and October, Greenfield’s page was submitted and rejected five separate times, sparking a heated debate that intensified with each passing week. Every verdict was the same: The reviewers ruled that Greenfield failed to meet “notability guidelines.”

Notability, like neutrality and verifiability, is an important concept for Wikipedia. Over the span of years, Wikipedia’s community of veteran users has codified its own working definition of the term, hatching bylaws and axioms meant to separate the “notable” wheat from the non-notable chaff. There’s a rule against “recentism,” for example: Does the article’s existence rely on an inflated focus on recent events? Editors are also encouraged to apply a “10-year test” to questionable articles: Will this article still be relevant in a decade?

But when it comes to politics, Wikipedia developed a special standard, which in theory is applied equally to all: No challenger running for office automatically enjoys notability, no matter the race—even for US Senate. All candidates are inherently “non-notable” unless they have held previous elected office or have achieved notability in their private life.


Odd as it sounds, this rule was conceived in an attempt to settle disputes from fringe parties on Wikipedia. Political activists sometimes demanded to know why a Democratic or Republican candidate deserved an article but a Cannabis Party candidate did not. Wikipedians responded by making both candidates inherently non-notable, unless they could prove otherwise. This approach epitomized the libertarian spirit of the early internet—adopting an agnostic attitude toward the fringe and the mainstream—but it wasn’t so concerned with a question that many others would have thought central: What is the information that will actually be most useful for the greatest number of voters?

The argument for this high notability bar wasn’t entirely without merit. One advantage was the ability to keep election content from exploding: with 435 congressional races every cycle (and a harrowingly large number of state and local ones, too) Wikipedia editors were spared the task of policing dubious pages for everyone who deigns to make a long-shot congressional bid. That, in turn, could prevent white supremacist and other fringe candidates from using Wikipedia as a platform for their campaign messages. And as other platforms have grappled with a tidal wave of disinformation in 2020, Wikipedia’s strict notability rules are a cause for celebration among some of its editors.

But another school of Wikipedians argue that the site’s overly strict rules on notability favor incumbents like Ernst—who are considered notable by default because they occupy elected office—and punish challengers. "They get lower Google juice, and they're not as findable," says Lih. “We deemed them not worthy of an article until they take office. And that’s really bad.”

Of course, not all challengers are punished. In 2018, all nine victorious Senate challengers had held prior office, which automatically rendered them notable. And 2020 candidates like Jaime Harrison (a well-known political operative) and Mark Kelly (an astronaut) are considered notable for achievements in their private lives. Among the top 10 competitive Senate races with Democratic challengers this year, all had already achieved previous notability, except for one—Theresa Greenfield.

A political newcomer, Greenfield has never held public office, and her life lacks the typical arc of a political climber. In 1988, her husband died in a freak accident; the Social Security benefits she received allowed her family to survive, a story that has become the centerpiece of her campaign. After earning a college degree, Greenfield became the president of a small Des Moines real estate firm.

This has made Greenfield an unusual candidate for national office: Her tragedies have been private, while her ambitions, if not modest, were focused: trying to raise two children as a single parent with a business. Greenfield’s lack of notability—which she shares with the vast majority of people she is running to represent—is in many ways a primary theme of her campaign.


In short, Wikipedia’s notability litmus test doesn’t just advantage political incumbents; it advantages the kind of people—insiders, celebrities, men—who already enjoy notable status in a social and economic hierarchy that others in politics may wish to democratize.

Greenfield’s dilemma is one that can often face female candidates: what might be called a “notability trap.” Political challengers who are deemed non-notable tend to be women, and they are often faced with only one path to getting a page on Wikipedia: winning their race. In 2018, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saw her Wikipedia entry appear on June 27, the day after she won an upset primary victory.

In the “blue wave” later that year, 88 newcomers would win election to Congress. Of the 52 challengers considered notable enough to have Wikipedia entries before their elections, almost 70 percent were men and 30 percent women. And among the 10 challengers already considered notable for their private-life achievements, eight were men: A liquor store magnate; the brother of Vice President Pence; a former NFL wide receiver; and a California man who won the lottery. Meanwhile, among the women not considered notable were a Navy commander, an Air Force captain and sports company executive, a key architect of the auto-industry bailout, a law professor, and an Iowa state official. All received their Wikipedia articles shortly after they won election.

The notability trap has become a topic of controversy outside of politics, too. In 2018, Canadian physicist Donna Strickland was repeatedly denied a Wikipedia page for lack of notability. That changed one day in October, around 9:56 am—the morning she won the Nobel Prize. Strickland shared the prize with a male colleague, Gérard Mourou, who has had a Wikipedia page since 2005. Earlier that year, when users attempted to create a page for Strickland, a moderator denied the request, replying that the article's references "do not show that the subject qualifies" for Wikipedia.

For activists, the Greenfield example reflects a familiar pattern. “Absences on Wikipedia echo throughout the Internet, and that is universal for any field—art, politics, and so on,” says Kira Wisniewski, the executive director of the organization Art+Feminism, a group founded in 2014 to correct what it saw as gender imbalances in the arts on Wikipedia. Wisniewski pointed to a 2011 survey that suggested more than 90 percent of Wikipedia editors were male, one reason she suspects women might be less likely to have their past achievements deemed notable.


Lih, the Wikipedia expert, is more reluctant to attribute Greenfield’s rejection to gender—some male Senate candidates, like Al Gross in Alaska, similarly did not have a Wikipedia page for much of this year—but nevertheless calls Wikipedia’s political rules a serious problem. “It’s pretty obvious an article was merited,” he says of the Greenfield case, later adding: “We’re not doing the right thing.”

Yet that wasn’t so obvious on Wikipedia. As the Iowa race became a virtual toss-up, Greenfield’s proponents became increasingly heated. They pointed to the growing national interest in the campaign. “This draft now clearly exceeds [the] notability threshold,” wrote one user.

But the other side insisted that Greenfield’s life was just not notable, and never would be—unless she won. “Drop the stick, and move away from the [horse] carcass,” wrote Muboshgu. “She'll get an article if she wins.” Another user evaluated Greenfield’s biography and wrote, “I don't think that gives her a meaningful career outside of her current Senate run,” adding that if Greenfield lost, “she will very likely be seen as insignificant.”

As Election Day loomed, users appealed to the Administrators Noticeboard, a kind of Wikipedia high council. There, Wales decided to get involved, along with 27 other administrators who took a vote on Greenfield. The 54-year-old founder urged administrators to grant Greenfield’s page.

Decisions on the Noticeboard are typically a paragraph or two; the debate pertaining to Greenfield stretched on for more than 4,000 words. Those who defended Greenfield echoed Wales, lamenting a breakdown in Wikipedia process that shouldn’t be repeated. “We have articles about bagel shops and pro wrestlers and porn stars and pizzerias, but not a major US Senate candidate? Come one,” wrote on administrator. Another wrote: “There has been so much poor judgement involving this article."

But during the final vote, the notability hawks stood their ground. “I don't know why the current article says she's a businessperson at all, never mind puts it first. She's not notable for it, and neither are the companies she serves on the boards of,” wrote one user, who voted to strike down the page. Wrote another: “You can give me all the sources you want that she has been married twice and has kids, but that tells me nothing about her notability."

In the end, the pro-Greenfield administrators prevailed—20 votes to seven. As one administrator wrote, "The idea that someone could be elected to the United States Senate and not have a Wikipedia article is deeply embarrassing to me and would constitute a high-profile failure on our part."

“That is far from a failure,” replied an administrator, who voted against Greenfield. Echoing the warnings that loosening the notability rule could lead to a slippery slope, the administrator held up the long-standing blockade against Greenfield’s page a "SUCCESS on the part of democracy."

In fact, many administrators wondered aloud whether Wikipedia’s rules and norms ought to be fundamentally changed. On the subject of notability in politics, Lih agrees: “This policy sucks,” he says. He wants administrators to consider a different approach, such as a points system that treats notability on a scale, with greater weight given to more prominent races. Wales urged his users to “think this over afterward to figure out how she slipped through the cracks.”

Longtime users described the final dispute as one of the most contentious 24 hours they had witnessed on the site. And on October 21, after months of rejections and with just 13 days to go until election, Wikipedia finally published Greenfield’s page. It quickly became the top Google result for her name, after her campaign and Twitter pages.

“I think this is going to be referred to as a seminal case going forward,” summed up Lih. “We are going to refer to it as the Greenfield Problem.”

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