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A Wrench in the Wayback Machine

MSNBC’s Joy Reid has claimed that the Wayback Machine was hacked in response to the discovery of homophobic comments in her old blog posts. True or not, her accusation isn’t just causing problems for the integrity of the Internet Archive, it’s adding another layer of confusion in the Fake News landscape.   

An Unauthorized Activity

In late April, Mediaite reported that it had obtained a series of homophobic posts from a defunct blog of MSNBC’s news host Joy Reid. The posts, taken from The Reid Report, were found by Twitter user @Jamie_Maz using the popular internet archives, the Wayback Machine.

Reid – who had learned about the discovery of the posts in December – denied writing them and insisted that they were in fact manipulated by “an unknown, external party”. She said:

I began working with a cyber-security expert who first identified the unauthorized activity, and we notified federal law enforcement officials of the breach. The manipulated material seems to be part of an effort to taint my character with false information by distorting a blog that ended a decade ago.

Reid’s claim that her blog archives were somehow hacked in the Wayback Machine is a monumental accusation. As The Intercept wrote, “The biggest part of the story is the veracity of her remarkable claim — that she’s making not 10 years ago but now — that it was hackers who wrote the offensive material under her name.”

The Wayback Machine is a service of the Internet Archives, which has been actively crawling and archiving the internet since 1996. This web archive “contains over 2 petabytes of data compressed, or 150+ billion web captures, including content from every top-level domain, 200+ million web sites, and over 40 languages.” If you need something more concrete, as of 2015, this archive could fit into a “twenty feet by eight feet by eight feet” shipping container and weigh “twenty-six thousand pounds.”

The Internet Archives has evolved into many things over the years. It’s a “a vast collection of digitized books, films, television and radio programs, music, and other stuff.” It’s “the digital library of the future . . . where your personal information remains private.” And it’s even an “independently-verifiable source” for evidence accepted by federal US courts.

And for it to be all of these things, it needs to be independent, trustworthy, and, most importantly, impartial. With this in mind, you are probably starting to see the fundamental problem with Reid’s hacking claim.

Chris Butler from the Wayback Machine responded to Reid’s assertion :

When we reviewed the archives, we found nothing to indicate tampering or hacking of the Wayback Machine versions. At least some of the examples of allegedly fraudulent posts provided to us had been archived at different dates and by different entities.

Five days after Mediaite’s article – and after a comedy of errors where Reid’s “cyber-security expert” was discovered to have ties to Neo-Nazis and then social media decided to put the scandal into the conspiracy meat grinder – Reid finally conceded and acknowledged that they had been unable to find evidence of any hacking, and put forward a half-apology.

It should be noted that Reid had previously apologized for making problematic remarks on the “complex issue of the closet and speculation on a person’s sexual orientation with a mocking tone and sarcasm” on the same said blog last December (note the spike in Google Trends for “Joy Reid homophobia” in December 2017 and most recently in the above image). So it’s not a stretch to assume that Reid is either lying or misremembering her own writing, which “are completely alien” to her.

If Reid had simply apologized for all of it at the start and conveyed how her opinions on these issues had evolved, Reid’s Google search results for the last few weeks would be dramatically different.

But that’s not how the internet works these days, and so here we are.

Hacking the Internet Archive

Sidestepping Reid’s public relations nightmare for the moment, let’s take a look at what it would actually mean for all of us if Reid’s initial claims were true.

Let’s jump from the darkest timeline we find ourselves trapped in and consider a different reality. In this reality, the variation point takes place in 1986, where Optimus Prime is not killed in a fight with Megatron and life today is dramatically different. For instance, in this new timeline, Kanye West had looked up the word “choice” in the dictionary. But it’s not all a bed of roses, because it turns out that Joy Reid had in fact told the truth: the Internet Archive was hacked!    

But is this even possible?

Everyone I talked to who understands this sort of thing pretty much gave me the same answer: Yes, but…

Yes, the Internet Archive could be hacked. But they also all said that hacking it to destroy someone’s reputation “requires a ridiculous amount of effort for little gain”, was “very inefficient”, “ridiculous” and “just stupid”.

Elephate’s resident Wayback Machine expert, Artur Bowsza, said:

The way the WayBack Machine works is by crawling the web pages and scraping the HTML code, which is then stored inside the archive. Every time the scraper visits the given page, it creates a new snapshot of the archived page and stores it as a separate archive. So, a single URL address can have dozens of separate archives created over time. Inside such an archive you could access the original HTML code of the pages (which is used to render the page content inside the archive). Technically it would be possible to place the manipulated content there – by injecting the modified HTML in place of the original one.

When I ran this past someone else who preferred not to be named, she said that changing one snapshot in this case wouldn’t be enough. “This hacker would have to get access to the whole database for this to work. There might be changes between crawls.”

Bowsza agreed: “The hacker would have to consider that.” And he added, “I think that in most cases, to find some inconvenient facts, you don’t need to hack the archive. Just dig deep enough online…”

A Moment of Doubt

No one could have predicted what the internet would become back in the days of dial-up modems and GeoCities. And even those with enough foresight to imagine an infinite virtual universe of sad Keanus and indecisive Travoltas, few could have considered how much the internet would end up distorting reality.       

So here we are all plugged into something that is as problematic as it is essential, as miserable as it is life-affirming, and as false as it is true.  

Which is why in this landscape of fake news and the age of post-authenticity, the rippling effects of this scandal are worth considering. Keeping in mind that this is a double-edged sword, as the ramifications are just as profound whether or not Reid is lying.

If we agree that Reid’s “hacking” was the work of “trolls”, “Brobots”, “Russians”, Beyonce or whoever else people would like to pin this “Fake Narrative right wing smear job” on, then this means that one of the few things meant to be objective and pure on the internet has been compromised.

This jeopardizes the Internet Archive’s ability to be a honest library, to keep our data private, and to be used as evidence in a court of law.

It also loses it ability to reveal the past objectively.

This is an era of digital revisionism, so the idea of having access to an unbiased digital snapshot of the past is an appealing prospect. The moment we have any doubt about the Internet Archive’s authenticity is the moment it all falls apart. And this is what Reid’s claim has introduced to this equation (and yes, I’ll admit that an article like this doesn’t help).

If she’s lying, Reid has decided to recklessly sacrifice the integrity of the Internet Archive in exchange of her own at the expense of the future’s ability to navigate the digital past unencumbered – and this is more pronounced by the fact that she’s doing this as a journalist.   

In Conclusion

The Joy Reid scandal had more dramatic turns than a light cycle battle, but the real story is what happens next. Is her throwing the Internet Archive under the bus enough to undermine its ability to be recognized as an objective source? Or is this the next nail in the coffin for our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction?  

June 1, 2018 Update:

Today Joy Reid issued an unconditional apology:

“I wrote thousands of posts in real time on the issues of the day. There are things I deeply regret and am embarrassed by, things I would have said differently and issues where my position has changed. Today I’m sincerely apologizing again.”

At the same time, her employer MSNBC has put out a statement of support for Reid, saying that “she has grown and evolved in the many years since, and we know this to be true.”

It’s especially worth pointing out that there was no mention of hacking from anyone regarding today’s statements.

  • 10 May 2018

See all articles by Christian A. Dumais

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