Accessing deleted online content is among the major nightmares facing fact-checkers. Sometimes, the content is unavailable if the website hosting it is no longer online. Failure to access such information is a dreaded experience for fact-checkers as their projects are significantly impacted.
In such circumstances, you are forced to settle for an alternative. In instances where the claim being investigated is directly hinged on that piece of information, you may have to shelve the fact-check entirely.
This is where the Wayback Machine tool provides assistance, giving life to the popular phrase, ‘the internet never forgets.’ The tool, developed by United States-based nonprofit Internet Archive, captures and archives billions of web pages daily for future retrieval. Whether the page is deleted or not, the Wayback Machine will assist information seekers in most cases.
Why is the tool necessary?
Besides the fact that a website may go offline for technical reasons, links to some digital information may be broken in case the site’s URL structure has been changed, possibly due to a switch in the hosting company. These are common incidents where the Wayback Machine becomes essential.
Even more, disinformation peddlers may deliberately alter original information on their websites to push a specific agenda. Sometimes, they create new websites to fuel misinformation and take it down afterward. Notably, the Wayback Machine helps to detect these actions and preserve the digital traces of their activities.
Application of the Wayback Machine
In August 2020, a leading member of Ghana’s governing New Patriotic Party (NPP), Gabby Otchere-Darko, posted a photo of a purported newspaper publication that showed power rationing schedules for August 1, 2016, to August 14, 2016. The post intended to prove his claim that the opposition party that lost the 2016 polls left behind an eroded energy sector.
In a counterclaim, the Deputy Minister for Power under the previous government, John Jinapor, challenged Otchere-Darko’s position in a statement, arguing that “there was no load shedding schedule published across 2016.”
Investigating this case through advanced Google searches and a reverse image search, it emerged that the same photo had been published online by a credible news platform from March 17, 2014, to March 30, 2014.
Image A: Supposed government-issued 2016 load-shedding schedule (Shared by Gabby)
Image B: Actual government-issued load-shedding schedule for March 2014 (Published by Graphic Online)
Further online searches indicated that Ghana’s electricity company issued a statement in 2016 to discredit the image. Unfortunately, the link to that statement was broken!
How to get information using The Wayback Machine
1. We copied the broken URL of the website.
2. Navigated the Wayback Machine website.
3. Pasted the broken link into the search bar.
4. Select ‘ENTER’
As highlighted above, this link has been captured six times by the Wayback Machine between August 1, 2016, and January 20, 2018. For my investigation, we selected August 1, 2016.
The electricity company’s statement which refuted the doctored power rationing schedule is offline (possibly because it has been deleted or the website no longer exists). That notwithstanding, the information is still accessible through the Wayback Machine.
This is how the Wayback Machine can save fact-checkers the headache of not finding information, including some social media posts central to their investigation.
Insights in this report were gained from a Dubawa fact-checking training programme and an ICFJ/CfA fellowship programme.
This article was produced with mentorship from the African Academy for Open Source Investigations (AAOSI), to tackle disinformation that undermines our democracies, as part of an initiative by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Code for Africa (CfA).