By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009
Shortly after authorities identified their suspect in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum shooting Wednesday, the world began searching for traces of James W. von Brunn online. Those who Googled immediately were able to find him: a personal Web site claiming Jewish "conspiracies," diatribes posted on message boards. But those who started their hunt just a few hours later would have found only empty holes -- information that was scrubbed away as Web sites figured out how to address the fact that they had once hosted the words of an accused murderer.
Searching the Internet became an elusive chase, both for information about von Brunn, and for an answer to whether it's possible to shred online history.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, which resulted in the death of one security guard, several items were unearthed online that appeared to be written by von Brunn: a piece titled "Obama Is Missing," which questioned the president's citizenship, on conservative forum FreeRepublic.com. A Wikipedia user bio page (von Brunn had edited only sporadically), in which he wrote that Judaism is "the Enemy of Mankind." A long-stagnant personal site, HolyWesternEmpire.org, which included links to a novel.
Throughout Wednesday afternoon, these links began to disappear. Clicking on the personal site resulted in an error message. The Wikipedia user page vanished. The Free Republic link was also removed -- at least for a while. Current events Web site Daily Kos remarked on the removal, and a few hours later, the post reappeared.
By way of explanation, Free Republic spokesman Kristinn Taylor says that when "Obama Is Missing" -- which had been re-posted from another site -- was brought to a moderator's attention, the moderator "removed it to review it," which Taylor says is a common practice on the site. After Free Republic determined that the post didn't contain racist or anti-Semitic remarks, which Taylor says would have violated the site's user agreements, the post was uploaded again. "There was no need to look like we were trying to hide something that we weren't trying to hide," Taylor says.
Wikipedia spokesman Jay Walsh says the user profile attributed to von Brunn was removed "not because of its linkage to [the shooting], but because it contained hate speech," a common reason for an article or user page to be edited or deleted. Walsh admits that the offending language might not have been discovered -- and subsequently removed -- had it not been for the shooting, but the incident caused people to "start looking and connecting and finding this page. . . . Sometimes it's just a matter of eyeballs needing to meet content."
Walsh says that if the user page had not contained objectionable language, "it's probably safe to say it would be a different situation." The user profile for JimmyFlatHead, the Wikipedia name used by anthrax suspect Bruce Ivins, has also been deleted, though Walsh says that he is not sure why.
In general, netiquette values transparency; removals, especially without explanation, are frowned upon. But the Internet is still a new enough medium of communication that it remains largely unregulated and without universal standards.
So much we are unsure of: Once a person commits a crime, does that make previous offensive comments somehow more offensive, more deserving of removal? Should Web sites be bound to preserve record of their affiliations with people who later turn out to be monsters? How much of a fresh start is deserved online?
"We've seen [scrubbing] happen with other perpetrators," says Deborah Lauter, who tracks incidents of Internet hate speech for the Anti-Defamation League. "It's a pretty regular thing" that pages on social networking sites will be removed, Lauter says. MySpace, for example, removed the profiles of Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, who are charged with plotting to assassinate the president. MySpace has a policy of removing profiles that "promote racism or bigotry," according to the site's security agreement.
Sites that remove incendiary material written by suspected criminals, Lauter says, "are worried that they'll be the subject of more scrutiny, and worried that they will be associated with violence. Some of these groups are very careful" to stress that they practice nonviolence.
After word got out that Scott Roeder, who is charged in the May 31 fatal shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller, had once posted a comment on the antiabortion activist site OperationRescue.org, the comment appeared to have been deleted. Operation Rescue quickly released a statement condemning Roeder's actions, saying that the organization works through "peaceful and legal means." Ron Shank, the organization's Web designer, said in an e-mail that the comment's disappearance had nothing to do with Roeder's actions but was rather due to "traffic handling modifications," in which comments were "suspended" two weeks after the original post. Roeder posted his comment in May 2007; other comments from the same time period are still visible.
Of course, Roeder's comment is still available, too -- it was copied and re-posted by dozens of other sites and news organizations before it disappeared. The same has been true for von Brunn's Web presence. The "disappeared" sites and postings have been cached and preserved for posterity, precisely because some contain hateful invective, by both archival tools like the Wayback Machine, and by amateur online archivists, and were circulated widely on message boards throughout Wednesday and yesterday.
Often on the Internet, even the things that disappear in an instant never really go away.