The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Web archivists and other digital sleuths are unraveling the mystery of MH17

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In the agonizing quest to pin down exactly what happened when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 went down over Ukraine last week, Web archivists and other digital sleuths are playing an unusual — potentially pivotal — role.

Wayback Machine, the nonprofit Web crawler that archives old versions of Web pages, captured evidence last Friday that a pro-Russian group was behind the attacks. Meanwhile, @RuGovEdits — a Twitter bot that monitors Wikipedia edits made from Russian government computers — logged evidence that reflects Russia’s interest in deflecting the MH17 narrative elsewhere.

Both bits of evidence could prove important to understanding the crash and its political aftermath, particularly as investigators question the integrity of the crash site. But they’re also compelling examples of the Web’s ability to promote transparency and hold powerful people accountable for their words — even, or especially, when they delete them.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Igor Girkin, a pro-Russian separatist leader whose hyperactive profile on Vkontakte, Russia’s Facebook clone, is regularly saved by the Wayback Machine. The administrators of Girkin’s page regularly post updates on the Ukrainian conflict from news sources, news conferences and Girkin himself. In fact, if you check the page now, you’ll see no fewer than a dozen updates on the crash, all blaming it squarely on the Ukrainian air force.

But there was an earlier update, now deleted, made shortly before the crash went public:

In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an AN-26. It is lying somewhere in the Progress Mine. We have issued warnings not to fly in our airspace. We have video confirming. The bird fell on a waste heap. Residential areas were not hit. Civilians were not injured.

Page administrators later tried to scrub that message, deleting it, posting a disclaimer distancing the page from Girkin and quoting a number of news stories that implicated the Ukrainians. They could not, however, remove the screen grab from the Internet Archive, where it now lives with 45 other versions of Girkin’s page.

“Here’s why we exist,” the Wayback Machine wrote on Facebook, with links to earlier versions of Girkin’s page. “A Ukranian Separatist boasted his pro-Russian Group shot down a Ukranian plane on his website. When it turned out to be #MH17 #MalaysiaAirlines he erased it, but our WayBack Machine captured the page for history.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Twitter bot @RuGovEdits was making its own MH17 discoveries. The bot, which is only one week old, records Wikipedia edits made from Russian IP addresses — unique numbers that identify each computer on a network. (You may already be familiar with the bot’s American equivalent, @congressedits.)

On July 18, the day after the plane crash, an IP address associated with Russia’s state-run broadcasting company, VGTRK, edited the page “List of aircraft accidents in civil aviation” to attribute the crash to the “Ukrainian military.” An address associated with Vladimir Putin’s office has also made multiple edits to the page for the crash itself, though none were so overtly political.

None of these edits necessarily prove anything, of course — and there have been plenty of cries for moderation and deliberation on Internet Archive’s Facebook page, where commenters point out that even the Web’s smoking guns can prove misleading.

But overall, the efforts of Internet Archive and others like it are powerful testaments for a new wave of pro-transparency bots and tools, all of them dedicated to leveraging technology to expose how governments, politicians and other powerful political figures manipulate the digital landscape. As I wrote last week about Hidden from Google — a Web site that collects links hidden under Europe’s “Right to be Forgotten” ruling — the tools aren’t an inadequate means of addressing the profound disparity between ordinary Internet users and the technological and political forces that impact them. But they are certainly a start.

“Important work,” one commenter wrote on the Internet Archive page. “Without it, we’re in Orwell’s 1984.”