The citizen archivist


Sanjana Hattotuwa

A public lecture of archiving from a few years ago dealt with how I’ve developed an interest in preserving digital content - especially on social media - for posterity. The assumption many hold is that digital content never decays and that once online, on the web or indexed on Google, content never disappears or goes away. This is wrong on many levels.

For starters, digital content is only good if its accessible. A book or scroll can last hundreds of centuries in the right conditions. Printed text doesn’t require energy to store and regenerate. A book’s format is timeless, requiring only the physical turning of a page to access its contents. A digital file - like this column sent to the Sunday Island’s Editor, a PDF or a spreadsheet - requires energy to be stored, and propriety technology to open. Think of WordPerfect, dBase III Plus or VisiCalc. All of these programmes were - just two or three decades ago - very common and widely used. Today, it’s a technical challenge to access any file created by them for two reasons. One, the magnetic media they were stored on. Old floppy disks, especially in the tropics, would have long given up a fight against fungi, humidity and insects. Two, the file formats are defunct and require significant effort and technical expertise to open in modern day computers and programmes. No digital file format or medium used today is immune from this same decay, decades hence.

So-called ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation aside, where citizens in certain jurisdictions can order search engines, through judicial review, to delink specific content, social media content is in fact extremely difficult to find as time goes by and for a variety of reasons. Vital content essential for a fuller historical record is sometimes erased. A few years ago, a demeaning comment on the posterior of a well-known actress, published on Namal Rajapaksa’s official Twitter account, is now gone. At the time it was originally posted, the tweet generated a lot of pushback from others, including from your author, disgusted at the comment and appalled that a culture of violence against women was condoned on the account of a prominent personality. As Namal Rajapaksa’s profile expanded and a public, political persona was more carefully crafted, this tweet, obviously inconvenient to and incompatible with future aspirations, was surreptitiously deleted without any apology. Namal’s father provides another example of deleterious digital deletion. In the first 24 hours of the constitutional coup late last year, the entire contents of the Prime Minister’s official website was wiped out and replaced by a single image of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rarely seeing or treating content on official websites as held in public trust, politicians often completely erase or overwrite content for parochial optics and partisan gain. In yet another example from few years ago, the entire contents of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) website disappeared completely, almost overnight, prompting an unprecedented note of dismay and alarm from the US Foreign Affairs Committee, which correctly flagged that citizen testimony was a vital part of historical record. Sadly, the website was never restored and its content - ranging from invaluable audio recordings to multi-lingual transcripts - is gone forever.

The problem is in fact much larger and more complex. Historically, every time the website of a leading newspaper in Sri Lanka is revamped, access to its archives - if they exist at all - is completely lost. Civil society projects often launch websites, each important and unique for what is captured, showcased and indexed. However, many aren’t engineered to last the unceasing onslaught of attacks against vulnerable web properties. In time, the sites crash or their domains - the web address if you will - expire. The greater the volume of production at a certain time, around a specific topic or on a particular platform, the harder it is to find a specific post. Combined with this, the longer the time after content was initially shared or produced, the less discoverable it becomes. Further, a lot of social media content exist in what are called ‘walled-gardens’. This means that what’s posted on Facebook and Twitter isn’t by default indexed on or discoverable through search engines. Biographies in the near future, anchored to key individuals whose correspondence, output and personalities mostly or only exist on certain social media platforms, will be near impossible to write or capture.

Over a decade ago, disturbed and saddened at the prospect of so much vital content being maliciously wiped out or disastrously degenerating over time, I started to archive key civil society websites and websites launched at the time of, or set up to record vital aspects of the ceasefire agreement. I also archived all the Twitter Q&A sessions conducted under the Rajapaksa regime, including with Mahinda Rajapaksa, Lalith Weeratunga and Nivard Cabraal. Sites set up by the erstwhile LTTE, linked to their ironic Peace Secretariat and Department of International Relations, were also archived. Additionally and over time, I started to archive key government websites linked to key political and developmental events, processes and projects. Dr. Saroja Wettasinghe, the former Director of Sri Lanka’s National Archives, in conversation with me after an interview we recorded for TV in 2014, said that she wished the Archives had the human resources and technical knowhow to scale up what I was doing.

Unsurprisingly, many of these sites, particularly linked to or from the time of the Ceasefire Agreement as well as the CoI and IIGEP processes, don’t exist anymore. The only existing public copy of vital records - from speeches and statements to declarations, agreements and proposals - are in the archived sites. Sadly though, much more than I could save, is lost. It begs the question as to how we record politics as it is conducted and contested today for posterity. The constitutional coup late last year resulted in the unprecedented growth of social media content, both in favour and staunchly opposed to it. From flood relief to constitutional reform, from the announcement of key policies to vibrant debates around political developments on Facebook, from the live broadcasts of press conferences and rallies on social media, generating millions of views and tens of thousands of comments, to campaign websites and related content, from personal tweets of politicians to the plethora of output from official accounts, from structured social media interactions with the public to more informal and unstructured engagements with those in positions of authority and power, politics is digital. How and to what degree we can capture these conversations, at risk of being subsumed, erased, deleted, lost and forgotten, matters a great deal. It requires, on the lines of UK’s Web Archive initiative, a high-level commitment by government to archive digital records. The UK doesn’t, to my knowledge, have to deal with politicians erasing entire websites just to put up their own image after an unconstitutional transfer of power. Clearly, Sri Lanka’s challenge, in addition to technical issues, is also institutional and cultural. There is no discernible evidence that successive governments value enough the work done by predecessors to save their digital records and output carefully.

Ultimately, the issue is how we deal with history, including inconvenient truths. To remember is political, and remembrance often is an act of defiance. Successive governments and political leaders wants citizens to forget. This essential tension is what places at risk all digital content that are official records. With scant regard for any version of history other than what’s officially sanctioned by whoever is in power, a fuller appreciation of the value of preserving digital content is almost entirely lost. The tragedy is that future generations will never even know how much of the country’s rich conversational, political, social and cultural textures they’ve lost.

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