It is hard to know what the truth is sometimes. It is less hard to know a fact. But that doesn’t mean that everyone has the same commitment to the facts that you, as a law librarian, might. I’ve run into this a couple of times with sites like the New York Times and Wikipedia, where facts don’t always seem to matter. Nor do corrections.

One thing I learned early on while working on my twin brother’s wrongful detention by Russia is that you can’t chase everything. I was on an interview yesterday with a seasoned journalist – decades of TV journalism – who called me Paul. A radio interviewer said he’d been in prison for 5 years (fact: 3.5 so far). Those are little things and they go past, particularly if they’re caught on video or audio. The likelihood that anyone will trip over them or that they’ll be heard or seen in the future is miniscule.

Text, though. That can be more frustrating because it’s easier to access, it’s often searchable, and seems more resilient, especially if it’s being syndicated. I have a general rule that I don’t read interviews in which I’m quoted because I don’t want to be tempted to try to get corrections made. Some journalists are open to it. Others, not so much. And, frankly, once it’s been published as text, and republished to social media, you have no chance of undoing whatever impact.

Small Errors

A good example is a New York Times article that was published last week. Which I didn’t read, because, in general, I don’t read media covering Paul’s case. It’s that rare circumstance that I generally know more than they do.

But it popped into my timeline because it was on a search trigger I use on social media. It appeared because a typos account had flagged the paragraph for grammar. And I saw it and thought, but that’s also factually incorrect.

Screenshot of a Twitter exchange discussing whether Paul has served 2 years of his 16 year sentence when he’s actually served 3.5 years.

To be fair, this is just some rando and I shouldn’t have wasted my time. They were not interested in facts and despite saying the underlying article was “accurate,” have no idea what they’re talking about. You can see, in the above image, I even provided them the Russian law on sentencing and time served in pre-trial detention.

That doesn’t change the fact that the New York Times has published this inaccuracy. [ Out of curiosity, I submitted a correction request to the New York Times and they made the correction ] And that will remain for as long as people value the text that the New York Times generates. Unlike some media, the Times will be stored in databases for generations.

Screenshot of a NY Times article saying that Paul has served 2 years of his 16 year sentence, which is inaccurate.

This one error isn’t the issue. It’s that there is sloppy editing and sloppy writing that is being enshrined forever. And then it becomes hard to sift through all the garbage that is repeated and amplified, leading to posts like this one, which I would characterize as both racist and factually incorrect:

Screenshot of a tweet that (a) says our sister is Paul’s wife and (b) says that two calls happened 3.5 years apart instead of 4 days.

As I say, the reality is that a lot of this, particularly on social media, will disappear. But someone looking today to find out how long Paul has been wrongfully detained by Russia will find claims ranging from 2 to 5 years.

More Central Errors

I like Wikipedia. There’s a lot of interesting information there that, when corroborated elsewhere, is a great way to learn. Unless you’re interested in the Scottish version of Wikipedia. Or Russian history.

Paul got a Wikipedia page early on and it had a lot of misstatements. Still does. Pages about living humans are tricky. If it’s about you, you may or may not be able to impact the truth or facts on the page. If it’s been published somewhere, regardless of whether it’s accurate, you may be stuck.

I tried to help with Paul’s page. You can find a long chat I had in the Talk section and a lot of the suggestions were adopted. But then I started to see references that Paul had had US$80,000 on him when he was arrested. That’s entirely false.

As best as I can guess, the Russian media quoted converted into rubles the US$1,200 value of two phones Paul gave to his erstwhile friend. That would be about R80,000 in 2018 dollars. Of course, we know now that that “friend” entrapped Paul and it’s possible that the debt was one of the reasons he did so.

It was such an obviously false piece of information, I went in and removed it. I can’t find any reference anywhere else in media reporting about the case that corroborates that single story. Wikipedia’s justification – that it’s a Putin enemy – doesn’t mean that it’s factual. There are stories in Russian media that talk about the phones and their value of R80,000 but they’re just as unreliable, due to Russian’s media connection to its government.

In any event, the Wikipedia Editors weren’t having it. You can see my attempt, both providing a comment to explain the change:

Screenshot of the Wikipedia interactive history for the Paul Whelan page. When you mouse over a grey bar, it shows you the before and after comments for the revisions

and the reversion by the Wikipedia editors:

Screenshot of the Wikipedia changes, mine on the left and the return to a citation to “Open Russia”, which has the erroneous information in its article.

2 years versus 3.5 years. $1,000 versus $80,000. It’s just numbers right? Things get lost in translation, literally in this case.

But no, it’s not the same. A tourist might have US$1,000 in value on them. Or they might have given a friend something of that value. But an American citizen who has US$80,000 on them in a country like Russia? It looks shady. That amount is 1.5 times the amount of a typical Russian’s annual salary.

And I’m pretty confident that, whenever Paul comes home, if he starts looking for housing or a job, a landlord or employer might look online. They may come across the Wikipedia entry or some other misstatement of Paul’s life or background. And it may impact whether Paul gets that lease or gets a job.

The United States doesn’t have the right to be forgotten. Even if it did, I’m not sure it would help Paul diminish the digital exhaust of the injustice he’s suffering. The cost in time or possibly lawyers to remove all the inaccuracies could be large. And there’s no real point in fixing them except for posterity: it doesn’t help the person impacted in the moment, for their future. Falsehood flies and truth comes limping after.

Shrug Off Facts

I’ve mostly learned my lesson. I’ve stopped contacting media about misprints and errors in their reporting. When we talk about the flood of information, you can imagine that it means that the flood carries with it a lot of impurities. And they get tumbled along with all the truth. None of it really matters unless we are worried about people understanding the past.

I try not to tilt at windmills any longer. But I do worry about what Paul will face when he gets home. It’s anxiety, I realize: I don’t have any good idea of what people in his situation face when they get home and find their lives, correctly or not, disbursed and discussed across social media and publicly-editable encyclopedias.

And I wonder more and more how much of what I read is accurate. I admit that, in the past, I might have read a newspaper and treated that single source as reliable enough to not bother to corroborate it. But I wouldn’t do that with a New York Times article any longer, or, frankly, content from any media. Anything I’m interested in gets a second look – primary sources are researched to verify they exist, to find out what they really say.

There’s a lot of friction in achieving accuracy when the publisher and media aren’t providing it reliably. This applies to the creation of information: taking things slow so as to get things right, rather than being the first to publish. It applies to corrections: going through a secondary editorial process where people may not value the change you want to make, even if it’s a fact or what they have published as a fact may not be.

It means my personal information gathering is slower. It is not necessarily more accurate because one hopes that these sources are factually correct. But I’ve lost confidence that media is careful enough.