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The Most Heated Debate on Trump’s Felony Conviction Is Happening on … Wikipedia?
June 17, 2024

The Most Heated Debate on Trump’s Felony Conviction Is Happening on … Wikipedia?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Beneath the surface layer of Trump’s Wikipedia entry there is an ongoing and spirited debate among editors about two specific words., Donald Trump’s felony: A heated debate is happening on the former president’s Wikipedia page.

At 4:37 p.m. on Thursday, New York Justice Juan Merchan announced to his Manhattan courtroom that the jury had reached a verdict. Twelve jurors had found former President Donald J. Trump guilty on all 34 counts of falsifying business records in connection with paying hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Half an hour later, a Wikipedia editor revised the first sentence of Trump’s Wikipedia article so that it described the former president as an American politician, media personality, businessman, and ‘convicted felon.’

At press time for this article, the words ‘convicted felon’ do not appear in the opening sentence of Trump’s Wikipedia page. Instead, the guilty verdict appears farther down, in the sixth paragraph of the article’s lead section and in a separate subsection about the Stormy Daniels case. But beneath the surface layer of Trump’s Wikipedia entry there is an ongoing and spirited debate among editors about those two specific words. As it turns out, it’s not always clear how to apply Wikipedia’s traditional rules to as polarizing a figure as Trump.

To set the scene, Trump’s Wikipedia article is a constantly evolving product of crowdsourcing, with more than 6,800 users contributing to date. However, unlike most articles on the site, it’s not a page that any user can edit—at least not initially. That’s because the article is subject to extended confirmed protection, which means only editors who have been registered on Wikipedia for more than 30 days and have made more than 500 edits can change the content. In theory, the 30/500 rule serves as a safeguard since new users are more likely than experienced accounts to try vandalizing the page.

The Wikipedia editor who added ‘convicted felon’ to the intro sentence—user ImYourTurboLover—was able to make the change because they have been registered and active on Wikipedia since 2017. But that change was reverted 38 minutes later by another experienced user, Sirdog, who said the words should not be added until the conclusion of a new Request for Comment, or RfC, Wikipedia’s protocol for asking the editing community for input on an issue.

Every Wikipedia entry has an associated talk page—a non-article space where editors discuss questions about article content. A lot of times these Wikipedia talk pages are relatively sleepy, but it’s fair to say Trump’s talk page is extremely active, with over 82,000 interactions to date. (For reference, Biden’s talk page has about 13,000.)

Once an RfC is proposed on a talk page, Wikipedia editors make statements opposing or supporting the proposal—in this case, whether the first sentence of the article should be rewritten in some form to include the phrase ‘convicted felon.’ By my count, more than 200 Wikipedians have weighed in on the question, and at press time, the editors are still debating the issue. But how will they finally decide? That’s hard to tell, partly because ‘wiki lawyers’—and there are several participating in the discussion—can probably argue the issue either way by grounding their stance in core Wikipedia concepts of neutrality and notability.

On the one hand, a fundamental principle of Wikipedia is that all articles must be written from a neutral point of view. While neutrality doesn’t mean avoiding negative facts, it does mean that articles should represent notable information about a subject ‘in proportion to the prominence’ of that information within the sources. Out of the vast media coverage Trump has garnered over the years, only a small, recent subset of sources refer to him as a felon. Thus, leading with this label would give it an undue weight that’s not reflected by the majority of sources. Furthermore, focusing on this aspect could be seen as an instance of recency bias that misrepresents Trump’s general notability. As the Wikipedian Nythar phrased it in the RfC, ‘He isn’t notable because he’s a felon; he is notable because he’s Donald Trump.’

Then again, it certainly seems notable—as in historical—that Trump is the first U.S. president to be convicted of a felony. Isn’t one of the primary purposes of a general encyclopedia to quickly summarize key historical info for the reader? The conviction is ‘one of the main, if not THE most notable thing about him,’ said the Wikipedia user Oathed. ‘He’s the only former president with this … achievement.’

Trump himself is unprecedented, but that hasn’t stopped Wikipedians from using precedent to argue about the writing of his Wikipedia page. Take former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich—his article bluntly states that he was convicted and incarcerated for public corruption, but that fact isn’t mentioned until the page’s second sentence. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bribery scandal likewise appears in sentence two.

The placement of ‘convicted felon’ on Trump’s Wikipedia page matters because the free internet encyclopedia remains one of the largest sources of training data for artificial intelligence applications. That means the specific wiki text influences what information is spit out by Google search results and A.I.-generated descriptions. With the November election rapidly approaching, Wikipedia’s decision could affect the digital prominence of the phrase.

Given Wikipedia’s key role in the information ecosystem, it’s no surprise that wealthy people sometimes pay ‘hired gun’ consultants to try to influence the content that appears on their Wikipedia articles—a premise that I explore, in fictional form, in my forthcoming novel, The Editors.

However, a review of the lengthy discussion on Trump’s talk page reveals no clear evidence of paid agents from either political party trying to influence the outcome. Interestingly, the editors who are against including ‘convicted felon’ in the first sentence do not appear to be avid Trump supporters. Rather, their main concern seems to be maintaining Wikipedia’s reputation as a reliable source of information for people across the political spectrum.

Bear in mind that right-wing conservatives have taken to regularly blasting Wikipedia on Fox News and other outlets. Meanwhile, Elon Musk has decided to take on the mantle of the site’s most outspoken troll. ‘The far-right is already convinced Wikipedia has a liberal bias,’ said the editor Gottagotospace. ‘We shouldn’t give them more fuel for that argument without good reason.’

Ultimately, Wikipedia editors must consider how their decision will be interpreted by outsiders who may not appreciate the rigor of the debate behind the scenes.


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