The reliability of dates on websites

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 15 15:13:22 UTC 2013

Thanks for your response JL. The date (given on the webpage at of the comment from "Michael Shouse" which uses "drone" as
a verb is October 21, 2011 as noted in Ben Zimmer's message. The
webpage has many comments and many dates, e.g., Oct. 5, 2011; Oct. 6,
2011; Oct. 7, 2011; Oct. 8, 2011; Oct. 21, 2011; Nov. 18, 2011; Dec.
2, 2011.

Regarding the December 7, 2011 date: Yes, that is the date that the
webpage was crawled by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. On that
date a "snapshot" of the contents of the webpage at was
archived at

A high confidence can be placed on that date because the webmaster at cannot modify the archived data at [1].
Further, the administrators at can be trusted (one
hopes) not to modify the data.

Of course, internal evidence on the webpage itself at
suggests that the October 21, 2011 is plausible. The dates are
internally consistent. Also, why would the webmaster bother to modify
the dates on the page?

Will it be necessary to evaluate every webpage and guess at the
reliability of the dates listed?

Words and phrases can have commercial value. People will be planting
evidence with fake dates.

The central problem concerns the possibility of retroactive
modification of data by webmasters, administrators, or crackers. For
example, the webmaster at has the freedom to modify the
contents of his or her website at any time. The dates and text can be
modified today to provide a date stamp of 1776 for a message stating
that the British were planning to drone George Washington.

Of course, I do not wish to cast aspersions on the webmaster(s) at The passage above is simply an example to help illustrate
the problem.


Footnote [1] I think the administrator of a website can request the
deletion of data from, but I do not think an
administrator can modify the data.

On Fri, Mar 15, 2013 at 8:29 AM, Jonathan Lighter
<wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: The reliability of dates on websites
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Garson's point is well taken.
> In this case, however, the only dates on the page are October 5 and October
> 6 (with replies dated the 6th). Dec. 7 looks like the date the page was
> archived or whatever they call it.
> JL
> On Fri, Mar 15, 2013 at 7:44 AM, ADSGarson O'Toole <
> adsgarsonotoole at> wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
>> Subject:      The reliability of dates on websites
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> Ben Zimmer's recent message about the verb "drone" contained the following:
>> [Begin excerpt]
>> Michael Shouse, Burn Pit (comment), Oct. 21, 2011
>> Who is to say who is a terrorist? That is a very dangerous label, and
>> will be used against us, even as we drone people into martyrdom.
>> [End excerpt]
>> The date of "Oct. 21, 2011" seems to be based on the text located at
>> the website. Since it is possible to retroactively alter the dates
>> listed on a website I think that it is natural to wonder about the
>> reliability of such dates.
>> Have the editors who are compiling the OED, Merriam Webster
>> Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary, and others developed
>> policies on which dates listed on websites provide acceptable
>> evidence? Perhaps the archive capture dates recorded by The Wayback
>> Machine of the Internet Archive should be acceptable. (In principle
>> even these dates can be modified retroactively.)
>> The sentence with the verb "drone": "That is a very dangerous label,
>> and will be used against us, even as we drone people into martyrdom"
>> is present in a snapshot within The Wayback Machine database that is
>> dated December 7, 2011:
>> Even with a date of "December 7, 2011" instead of "Oct. 21, 2011"
>> Ben's discovery is great. Maybe both dates should be given.
>> Ideally, an electronic historical archive should periodically copy
>> data to a storage format that is fixed and difficult to alter, e.g.,
>> data should be burned onto write-once archival quality CDs, DVDs or
>> Blu-Ray discs (if they exist). If archival storage of this type does
>> not exist then it should be developed.
>> Backup snapshots in write-once storage could be used to provide
>> assurance that data is not being retroactively altered.
>> Garson
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society -
> --
> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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