Opinions

History is rewritten on Twitter and social media, often by propagandists or idiots

By Jason Steinhauer

Those distracted by our recent political theater may have missed an extraordinary international incident at the end of May: Russia and Ukraine got into a Twitter war about history.

A brief recap of what occurred: Russian President Vladimir Putin held a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in France. During the briefing, Putin proudly stated that the wife of French medieval King Henry I, Anna Yaroslavna, was Russian.

A Ukrainian Twitter account tweeted that, in fact, Yaroslavna was from Kiev, not Russia.

The official Twitter account for Russia tweeted back: “We are proud of our common history … (we) share the same historical heritage which should unite our nations, not divide us.”

To which Ukraine tweeted this GIF from “The Simpsons.”

Anna Yaroslavna of the Ukraine

The exchange garnered thousands of reactions on Twitter, ranging from laughter and shock to citizen historians sharing their own interpretations of what the medieval Slavic states looked like.

Absent from the conversation? The voices of historians, who are critical in providing honest assessments based on well-researched evidence.

Hundreds of millions of people now consume historical information on social media, either directly or via links. According to a 2016 Pew survey, a majority of U.S. adults — 62% — get news on social media, and 18% do so often. The same study found that nearly 6-in-10 Twitter users get news on Twitter. Few go to newspapers, academic monographs or journal articles to dig deeper.

A forum such as Twitter is therefore an important opportunity to clarify information for citizens and hold political leaders and state actors accountable in their use and abuse of the past.

Often on Twitter many of the comments and responses rely on facts from Wikipedia or other sources that may not be thoroughly researched. Additionally, many of the replies (including those from the two nations involved) are politically motivated and as such may not be trustworthy or objective. This is where historians play an important role in setting the record straight.

Of course, the issue of historical accuracy isn’t a uniquely Russia-Ukraine story. On behalf of the U.S. State Department, I was recently in Lithuania, where Russian media are asserting that since Soviet troops won the land of Lithuania during World War II, it should now be returned to Russia. This is part of a larger effort by Russian media and military to discredit Lithuanian history and justify a return to a Soviet-style sphere of influence.

That’s where we need the voices of historians to cut through the clutter. Indeed, this was my message in meeting with U.S. and Lithuanian officials in addition to scholars and students. It is why a group of historians, media scholars and science communicators nationwide have established the field of “history communication” to train historians to be media-savvy and to empower them to use new media to promote their scholarship.

Historians have taken great steps to get out of the classroom and into cyberspace. Dozens of historians are working together on a new history blog for The Washington Post, and there are several history-themed podcasts and websites publishing historical scholarship.

But we need to go even further.

Many historians, including those who work on Russia, have Twitter accounts. My list of historians on Twitter is now more than 1,100 members. Some historians, such as Kevin Kruse, Joanne Freeman and Heather Cox Richardson, are already taking it upon themselves to interject their expertise into contested exchanges about the past. It cannot stop with them.

The subtext for the Russia-Ukraine exchange is complex. And it’s part of a larger Russian effort to establish legitimate claims to former Soviet lands through influencing public opinion.

History, of course, plays an important role in this process. Before Moscow annexed Crimea, it set out to establish Russia’s historic ties to the peninsula and rallied support among the residents for a return to their Russian homeland.

Whereas in the past these contestations over history may have played out in books, the mainstream media and academia, today they also occur over the Internet and social media.

We need historians to be there at the ready to disentangle myth from fact.
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Jason Steinhauer is the director of Villanova University’s Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest.

Credit: CNN, http://edition.cnn.com

  • libertarian1776

    Oh boy.

    The Washington Post is going to start a history blog staffed by historians who will make sure that everything is accurately portrayed?

    Sure.

    Kinda like the journalistic accuracy of the story informing us that 17 intelligence agencies confirmed irrefutable evidence of Russian interference in the recent presidential elections?

    Or maybe like the accuracy of the mythology all of us were taught in our history classes that Lincoln freed the slaves when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation?

    Saddam has WMD’s?

    Puh-leeze.

    Twitter provides links to in-depth articles offering many different viewpoints on current and historical events. It’s up to each individual to do his own due diligence and to question everything he reads. I find Twitter an invaluable resource for digging out the truth that–I’m sorry to say–is non-existent in the rag of record (NY Times), WaPo, or the WSJ.

    If you want the truth these days you have to do your homework. And take the advice of Thomas Jefferson:

    “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”

    • libertarian1776

      I should have noticed that the source of this story was CNN. In light of the recent news regarding the objectivity and veracity of that disgraced network, maybe David, Deke or Jonathan should have re-titled this article “Historians [and so-called journalists] Are Often Propagandists and/or Idiots.”

    • StilllWatching
      • libertarian1776

        Sorry- have been out of town and incommunicado for the past couple of weeks.

        In reviewing the IESS story and its associated comments thread, it looks like you and BDev have covered the libertarian side of the argument exceptionally well. The only thing I would add to the discussion would be to repeat my argument for decentralization and the creation of dramatically smaller political units that would allow people to vote with their feet.

        Let Faulkner, Globetrotter, Johninnv and those of similar Nanny State proclivities go their own way and let us go ours.

        Seems like a timely argument in light of tomorrow’s anniversary of the declaration of secession from Great Britain.

  • Pixelvt

    To this day I still see no reason to use Twitter, tried it once or so, useless for me, am I missing something ? For so called social media I use a bit of Facebook, Linked In and I suppose Disqus, that is it, and I have been computing 40 years

    • StilllWatching

      Communicating a meaningful message in 140 characters? Jajajajaja. Just read trump’s tweets and you’ll know all you need to know.

      Of course trump supporters are perfectly suited for such messages.

    • Jason Faulkner

      The only thing I’ve found it is good for is breaking news. Whenever something major is happening, especially in a place like Ecuador which doesn’t get much coverage, I can click on a hashtag and get reports mostly from people right there on the ground. We used it extensively in the early hours after last year’s earthquake.

      • Pixelvt

        I can see that, I just never bothered to learn, and am not convinced I need to at this point.

  • David Naccari

    Nothing new here – the U. S. Media has been rewriting contemporary history for decades now. – and the publishers of history textbooks used in middle and high schools have been sanitizing, dumbing-down, rewriting history for decades as well.

  • Judita Jessica Kosorinec

    Just another US attempt to bring down Russia.- never gonna happen. I am Slovakian. Russians were in Slovakia while I was growing up but I’ll take the socialistic system anytime before the capitalism and all the “Freedom ” I had privilege to experience living in USA.

  • Doug Vasey

    According to a 2014 census, 65% of the Crimean population are Russians and 77% say their native language is Russian. National affiliation should be up to the people who live there, not corporations or foreign governments, don’t you think?