Off the record?

For as long as people have been writing books there have been others who sought to destroy them. When it's driven by moralistic or political objections, book-burning often takes a ritualistic form, carried out in public. Regardless of the books in question, setting fire to them strikes many people as abhorrent in principle – as a generalised attack on knowledge and the right to freedom of thought and expression.

Today, when written words are more likely to be created in electronic form than as ink on paper, pressing the "delete" key is a simple, undramatic and usually private act. Everybody deletes things, for all sorts of reasons. But sometimes it crosses a line and becomes the digital equivalent of book-burning.

There's no doubt that today's social media contain a welter of trivia, often of no interest to anyone except the person who is posting. To view social media entirely in that light, however, is to grossly underestimate their power and importance. Social media also provide a running commentary on major events – through the eyes of ordinary people rather than elites. 

There is no precedent for this. For the first time in history we have a vast public record of what masses of people are saying and thinking. This can be a valuable resource for current and future generations of researchers – if we preserve it intact.

At present, the problem is not so much that this record is threatened with wholesale destruction but that parts of it are being destroyed in ways that can change the overall picture.

Recently, for example, there has been concern about Facebook's deletion of various pages connected with the Syrian opposition, possibly at the behest of pro-Assad elements. Some of them have been listed by Felim McMahon of Storyful and the blogger, Brown Moses.

McMahon points out that some of these have helped Storyful to corroborate (or not) various claims about the Syrian conflict, while Brown Moses notes that "nearly every Facebook page" reporting on the chemical attacks in Damascus last August has now gone.

Alongside the fighting on the ground, there's also a propaganda war being fought over Syria – mostly via the internet. At first sight this might seem like a sideshow but, as in all wars, it's an integral part of the conflict.

One individual heavily involved in the Syrian propaganda war on the pro-Assad side, through Twitter and various websites, is Sharmine Narwani (who I have written about previously, here
herehere, and here).

Among other things, Narwani wrote a dozen highly contentious articles for Huffington Post, some of them about Syria. Whether you like them or agree with them is beside the point. Whatever their merits or de-merits, they were examples of the sort of arguments being used by Assad supporters and the fact that Huffington, a major American website, saw fit to publish them at the time is also interesting and relevant. 

Once posted, they became part of the public record, and ought to remain so.

Visitors to Huffington's website last May could have seen 
this page (preserved here by the Wayback Machine) which lists Narwani's articles. Look at the same page today and they have all been deleted except for one which she co-authored with someone else. It's as if the other articles never existed.

Narwani eventually fell out with Huffington and stopped writing for them, setting out her side of the dispute here. But when writers leave an organisation it is not normal to delete all their work, even if there is bad blood between them.

One explanation might be that these deletions were a result of Narwani's accusations against Huffington, but that doesn't really add up. The articles were removed sometime between May and September last year – long after the original dispute.

When I noticed their disappearance a few weeks ago I wrote to Huffington, asking the reason, and so far I have had no reply.

Although deleted web pages can sometimes be retrieved from web archives such as Wayback, that is only feasible if you know they once existed and have the relevant URL.

I'm not suggesting that articles on the internet should never be deleted or changed but that it should not be done lightly, and when it does happen, publishers should be prepared to justify their decisions in public.

When I worked at the Guardian there were strict rules about this because it understood the need to have a record of published material that was as complete and un-tampered-with as possible. Once published, articles could be removed only  in very special circumstances (such as legal requirements) and if something was changed (because of factual errors, for example), readers had to be made aware of the change and when it happened.

If we don't want to end up in book-burning territory, that is how it should be.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 9 February 2014