Few people would approach a complete stranger on the street for information about the pressing issues of the day, and yet that is just how many behave on the internet. In the wake of the 2016 election, reporting from Buzzfeed and other outlets has made it increasingly clear that the American voter is woefully lacking in the skills needed to judge the veracity of a news website. Among the many headlines from fake news websites were reports that Pope Francis endorsed President-elect Trump, that Hillary Clinton used a body double throughout the campaign and sold weapons to ISIS.
The founders and authors of these fake news promulgators craft their stories for the sole purpose of maximizing visitor hits to in turn generate massive revenue. Their deceptions play to readers’ worst fears regardless of whether the writers themselves subscribe to the political leanings of the article's content. "It is not intended to pose an alternative truth," writes author Neal Gabler, "as if there could be such a thing, but to destroy truth altogether, to set us adrift in a world of belief without facts, a world where there is no defense against lies." In comparison with news outlets (and other sites) that offer ideologically biased takes on the most pressing issues of the day, fake news operations occupy a unique place on the web and constitute an obvious and menacing threat to unsuspecting visitors. The inability of so many readers to distinguish between the two, and knowing when to steer clear of a website altogether, is undoubtedly concerning.
For those of us on the frontlines of education, especially for history teachers, this problem is nothing new, given the ways in which the rise of the internet has transformed the teaching of the subject over the past 15 years. Students and teachers now have access to a vast amount of information about the past, but few know how to discern what is reliable and what is not.
The problem surfaced for me in 2001 when a student handed in a research paper on the early history of the Ku Klux Klan that minimized the level of racial violence during Reconstruction and characterized their relationship with black Southerners as overall positive. The sources were drawn almost entirely from websites published by individual Klan chapters. The student had not thought about the obvious bias of the website or whether it constituted a legitimate historical source. The experience served as an important learning experience for the students, but even more so for me.
Even as late as 2001, my students still relied primarily on printed materials compared to Internet sources. Librarians maintained control over new additions to the stacks, allowing for a certain level of quality control, but with each passing year the availability of faster personal computers, handheld devices and increased access to the web provided students with easier access to information about an ever-expanding number of historical subjects. Students and teachers benefited immensely from this increased access. Teachers could now introduce their students to a deep well of primary sources and historical figures that never made it into textbooks. Opportunities for students to conduct their own research through primary and secondary sources was soon limitless, defined only by the time they are willing to spend researching.
On the other hand, the technology quickly outpaced educators’ ability to police or even guide students as to how best to search and assess online information. An unsubstantiated narrative, perpetuated by the media, that children are digital natives, naturally hardwired to understand how to use computers, helped to exacerbate the problem even further. Students were left to figure it out on their own as schools gradually cut back on the purchase of additional printed sources or purged their collections entirely. Where once librarians taught students how to research, few schools appreciated the important role they could play in educating students how to search and assess information on the Web. A recent study of Internet literacy among students by the Stanford History Education Group shows that they are incapable of "distinguishing advertisements from news articles or identifying where information came from."
There is no denying that access to primary sources from the Library of Congress and other research institutions, along with secondary sources from the scholarly community, has enriched the teaching of history, but their availability means little if they cannot be accessed or distinguished from the vast amount of misinformation that awaits the uneducated user online.
In 2008, George Mason University professor T. Mills Kelly created a course called "Lying About the Past" in which students were encouraged to create fake websites about a historical subject. Students worked on creating a fake Wikipedia page, blog, and videos about Edward Owens, a fictitious Virginia oyster fisherman who took up piracy in the Chesapeake Bay in the 1870s. This fake historical narrative was complemented by fake primary sources, including Owens's “legal will.” Although the project was met with some skepticism and even more serious charges by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Kelly hoped his students "would become much more skeptical consumers of online information."
It's difficult to imagine a more effective method of driving home such an important lesson. In the years since Mills first taught the class, opportunities to publish and share information online has expanded even further through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and blogging platforms such as WordPress and Medium. Opportunities to publish can be an empowering experience. History teachers who embrace these digital tools can shift from assignments that would never see the outside of their classroom's walls to projects that have the potential to reach a wide public audience. Educators can engage students about the ethical responsibilities related to how information should be published on the web.
But if the public is left unprepared and without the skills needed to determine what is real and what is suspect, there can be real consequences. Consider for instance the publication of Our Virginia: Past and Present a fourth-grade textbook written by Joy Masoff. First discovered by William and Mary historian Carol Sheriff, whose child was then in the fourth grade, the chapter on the Civil War included a statement that "thousands of Southerner blacks fought in Confederate ranks, including two battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson." The myth of the Confederate black soldier is an insidious one, traced back to the late 1970s and a small group of Confederate heritage advocates who hoped to distance the history of the Confederacy from slavery. If black men fought as soldiers in the army, they argued, than it would be difficult to maintain that the Confederacy fought to protect and expand the institution of slavery. Not a single academic historian came forward in support of the textbook's claim. Later it was learned that Masoff had discovered the information on a website published by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
There are thousands of websites published by individuals and organizations who believe black Confederate soldiers existed. Websites such as the Petersburg Express, for example, includes photographs and even primary sources that to the uneducated may appear legitimate. The purveyors of these stories often insist that they are providing a public service by uncovering accounts that academic historians have intentionally ignored. Regardless of the motivation for publishing the material in question, these websites present visitors with some of the same challenges as fake news sites.
The history classroom is an ideal place in which to teach students how to search and evaluate online information given the emphasis that is already placed on the careful reading and analysis of historical documents. Even the most basic guidelines can steer students away from misinformation. Consider the following questions next time you are researching online:
- Is the site associated with a reputable institution like a museum, historical society or university?
- Can you identify the individual or organization responsible for the site, and are the proper credentials displayed?
- Then, finally, you have to examine the material itself. Is the information provided on the Web site, including text and images, properly cited? What can you discern from both the incoming and outgoing links to the site? Only then can you approach it with the same level of trust that you would a scholarly journal or piece of archival material.
History classrooms that emphasize the critical evaluation of bias and perspective in primary sources, along with the questions above, will also provide students of all ages with the necessary skills to evaluate the links that regularly appear in their Twitter and Facebook feeds. Healthy and well-deserved skepticism can go a long way.
The ease with which we can access and contribute to the web makes it possible for everyone to be his or her own historian, which is both a blessing and a curse. The internet is both a goldmine of information as well as a minefield of misinformation and distortion. Teaching our students how to discern the difference will not only help them steer clear of fake history and fake news, but reinforce the importance of a responsible and informed citizenry. In doing so, we strengthen the very pillars of democracy.
Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (2012) and is currently at work on Searching For Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth for the University of North Carolina Press. You can find him online at Civil War Memory and Twitter @kevinlevin.