Internet Archive hustles to debunk COVID-19 conspiracy theories it inadvertently documented

Context is key for archiving. Now, under COVID-19, it's become a necessary tool for debunking misinformation.

tinfoil hat against mass media

Coronavirus conspiracy theories are spreading all over the internet. Social media networks are trying to, in their shaky ways with mixed results, tackle the misinformation while public health officials are trying to do their share at the podium.

The Internet Archive, too, is doing its part to handle COVID-19 hot and baseless takes. Known as one of the web's most popular e-archives, the Internet Archive has a simple job: document what goes online. Under COVID-19, it has an additional duty: disavow the fake news in its collection.

Reject right off the bat — There's no mincing words here. The web has a COVID-19 misinformation problem. But the Internet Archive is trying to mitigate the issue by openly sounding the alarm on unsubstantiated claims. NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny first spotted the move to add context to archived links when she looked at the now-removed Medium post titled: "COVID-19 had us all fooled, but now we might have finally found its secret." The Medium post was taken off by the website but the web's archive still has its skeleton up.

What it'll say on questionable content — If you go to that article mentioned by Zadrozny, you'll instantly notice the yellow disclaimer at the top of the page. It reads:

This is an archived web page that determined violated their Content Policy. Here is a link to it on the Live Web. In most instances, the archiving of a page is an automated process. The inclusion of a page in the Wayback Machine should not be seen as an endorsement of its content in any way.

Adapting to fake news as it emerges — Archivists are having to adapt to the spread of misinformation in real-time. As outlets have noted before, many internet users have been digging up debunked links to spread COVID-19 misinformation. It's a kind of loophole for those conspiratorially inclined. In return, however, these archives have sought to add disclaimers to limit the spread of bogus claims and hoaxes.

It's a battle between fact and fiction. For people like Mark Graham, who directs the Internet Archive, it's key to keeping ignorance down. These disclaimers, he told Zadrozny, mark the "importance and value of context in archiving."