“I was not a fan of his, I can tell you that.”* Delete all you like – you can’t erase your digital history

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

*Quote from Donald Trump on Jeffrey Epstein

As news unfolded on Wednesday evening of the horrendous scenes in Washington, political figures across the UK started to distance themselves from Donald Trump, with some even trying to airbrush evidence of their previously glowing support for POTUS. But it’s not that easy in a digital age to remove your trail.

A Twitter account called @deletedbyMPs – part of the Politwoops project funded and organised by Netherlands based democracy campaign the Open State Foundation – keeps an eye on this sort of activity and issues a notice of a deleted tweet from an MP’s account. Often deletions will be due to a genuine mistake, but it’s useful to have this data transparency project to monitor cases where it’s a change of position that motivates the delete key. Right now there are numerous politicians and political commentators who have been quick to jump aboard a bandwagon and are then desperate to sanitise their feed when the wind changes. Here’s Leave’s devoted fanboy Darren Grimes suggesting Trump run again in 2024, a tweet now deleted but preserved for posterity by some smart screenshotting.

It’s so easy to change a digital record. Typed something in haste you later regret? Just press delete. Made a spelling mistake? Just click the edit button, correct your spelling and nobody need ever know you momentarily confused ‘their’ and ‘there’. But digital also leaves an often very thorough audit trail which makes it easy for the rest of us to check for changes, misuse and foul play. Take Wikipedia: it’s easy to become a Wikipedian anonymously and edit your boss’s list of achievements to make them sound all the more impressive, a practice known as astroturfing. However, the Wikipedia community’s beady eyes police the quality of edits and anyone can click ‘View History’ to see every change or suggestion made and by whom. One UKIP MEP was banned in 2016 as a result of his suspicious over-editing of his own page. Anonymous editors can still be identified by their IP address which appears instead of a username. There was a battle to establish Parliamentary IP addresses via an FOI request to allow data transparency campaigners to check up on just this sort of activity.

Remember Dominic Cummings’s blog which he altered once the coronavirus pandemic had been identified as a major threat to give the impression that he had foretold it? Even if he had predicted, it wouldn’t have been the sign of a uniquely talented seer: the potential for a SARS type pandemic has long been on the national risk register. Government even ran a three-day pandemic simulation –Exercise Cygnus – back in 2016 (and then failed to implement its findings). So while Dom promoted his status as super forecaster extraordinaire, it didn’t take deep knowledge of data science to be able to dig into the metadata and point out the date stamp on the edit.

Photos can also be easily checked: a Google image search will often demonstrate that a picture has a longer history than you’re being led to believe. Toby Young recently tweeted an ‘empty ITU ward’ as proof that lockdown was totally unnecessary (tweet now deleted!). It was quickly established that the hospital pictured was in fact in Guantanamo, Cuba and it was a stock photo from Getty Images taken in 2006. Metadata in the file revealed that, but it proved even easier to catch out the distributors of purported images of an anti-lockdown protest in London. The photo used was of Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League victory parade and many people familiar with the city were quickly able to spot that the backdrop was St Georges Hall, not London’s Trafalgar Square.

An old colleague once told me that in an almost 40-year career as curator of the British Library’s newspapers collection, he had only ever once made a physical correction to a page. It was important that even if factually incorrect, libellous or politically dangerous, it remained a matter of record.

Our legal deposit libraries manage the UK Web Archive which takes a periodic snapshot of important websites, while the National Archives has archived government websites and digital content since the early 2000s. Websites change quickly but these resources can offer an opportunity to see what was there before any updates.

This article is a rallying cry: to keep your eyes peeled and to call out retrospective amendment of the record. If the UK Web Archive were to find its funding falling victim to a further round of Tory austerity, this could prevent it preserving too many inconvenient truths. Be aware of the Archive and how important it is. Information sources like Wikipedia, Politwoops and Full Fact are all community led and they rely on donations, not think tank funding, to operate. Take a look at the work they do and support them if you can. Information is power so let’s arm ourselves as best we can against fraudulent ‘tweaking’ of history.