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This isn’t a column about the simple foolishness of United States President Donald Trump apparently doctoring a forecast map to bolster his claim that Alabama was among the U.S. states threatened by hurricane Dorian. (Trump had said the state was threatened — the U.S. weather service hurriedly said that had never been the case. Trump then produced a strangely altered map of the hurricane’s projected path to defend his own comments, with a circle drawn to include Alabama that looked as though it had been added with a Sharpie.)
But that is where this column started, in a way.
One of the things that has been abundantly clear in western politics in recent years is that the truth doesn’t matter anymore. In the past, getting caught in an outright lie could be a career-changer — now, at least as far as your supporters go, even an obvious lie is instantly forgiven.
But if politicians discover they can lie with impunity, what’s to stop them from stealing?
I don’t mean stealing money — I mean stealing information.
I used to have a massive library of government documents — budgets, reports by commissions of inquiry, annual reports from Crown agencies, and the list goes on. They were, by and large, stored in my unique gravitational filing system: the most-used documents, like the provincial estimates for the current and past year, usually worked their way to the top.
But, through successive office moves and the easy online availability of most documents, my piles of paper got winnowed down. Why waste time stirring up clouds of paper dust when the internet can do it for you? Why carry books around, when your iPad has it all right there, and is so much lighter?
But there’s a downside to that — and that’s keeping all the data eggs in the same basket, often conveniently under government control on government servers.
Think of it this way: all the books may still be in the big library, but without the catalogue, good luck finding them in the stacks. You don’t need to burn the books if you burn the catalogue.
And it wouldn’t even have to be obviously deliberate; just change the weblink and move it out of sight, especially on a website that’s packed with information. That way, if someone comes looking, you can always just say “Oops, we made a mistake” and pop it back up again.
There are already documents that are effectively kept from the public, simply by putting them on the equivalent of the internet’s back shelf.
I regularly find reports on everything from car insurance to regulation of the electric grid to damning financial details about megaprojects hidden in plain sight; significant reports are completed, but there’s no announcement of their release. It’s easy to miss the new ones, unless you devote significant daily time to churning through the lists.
...if a politician can do something as bold and stupid as taking a Sharpie to a weather map, you can only imagine what they might get away with on the web.
I’ve also experienced occasions where government documents I remember reading suddenly vanished when I needed to find them again: I’ve heard the excuse “Oh, we moved that — here it is…” when I’ve asked for them.
There have already been examples south of the border of information being stripped from government websites. In April 2017, on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website, webpages that linked climate change to human activity vanished for an “update.” Years later, those pages are still gone, as is the temporary page announcing the update.
And yes, there are sites that capture and keep copies of information posted on the web. But they are an imperfect solution — they don’t capture everything.
Right now, the concept may seem incredible.
But if a politician can do something as bold and stupid as taking a Sharpie to a weather map, you can only imagine what they might get away with on the web.
Beware the boldness of revisionists.
Russell Wangersky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.
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