The Use and Abuse of History
New technologies and social media help to fuel disinformation campaigns. What can historians do to intervene? The example of Wikipedia shows how historians can use their knowledge of the past in a responsible way and make it accessible to all.
By Heidi Tworek, The University of British Columbia
The abuse and misuse of history can be harmful in many ways. Most discussions on this subject focus understandably on textbooks, school curricula, and on politicians, sadly a highly relevant topic given Vladimir Putin’s invocation of deeply flawed history to justify the invasion of Ukraine. Historical distortions can, however, cause many other harms. First, they can create bodily harm. In early May 2022, much of the United States was roiled by a leaked draft decision written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court decision underpinning abortion rights in the United States. The official decision on June 24, 2022 returnedabortion regulation to the individual states, which will now deprive tens of millions of women of access. Legal and gender historians have pointed out that Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority decision overturning Roe v. Wade contains flawed understandings of the long history of abortion in the United States. Much representation around the leaked decision mistakenly portrayed Roe v. Wade as a decision that sparked polarization in the United States. Meanwhile, historians like John Christopoulos have also documented the much longer complex history around abortion and miscarriage, stretching back to 16th-century Italy.
A distorted picture of Europe’s past
Second, misrepresentation can cause psychological harm. For many refugees from the former Yugoslavia, it hurts when politicians present the war in Ukraine as if it were the first major conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, for example, called the war in Ukraine “Europe’s darkest hour since the Second World War.” Forgetting a war that made 2.5 million people refugees has deleterious consequences for the refugees, but also for Europe by creating a distorted picture of its past. Third, historical distortions may cause financial harm. Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of war in Ukraine saw many online scammers switch to grifting around that crisis. Abbie Richards suggests that “TikTok’s platform architecture is amplifying fear and permitting misinformation to thrive at a time of high anxiety,” calling the platform’s design “incompatible with the needs of the current moment.” Those who do not understand the history of Ukraine may be even more susceptible to fake fundraising schemes.
Historians can help to preserve …
These are just three types of harm that can result from the intentional abuse and unintentional misuse of history. With such problems seemingly ubiquitous, what can historians do? Arguably quite a lot. First, historians can do what we were trained to do. We can document, preserve, and collect. For example, scholars at UBC and Simon Fraser University are working on a Xinjiang Documentation Project which finds and translates key documents around “the extrajudicial detention of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Northwestern China.” After Russia invaded Ukraine, scholars and volunteers started to download and preserve Ukrainian websites from museums, archives, and other cultural institutions. Currently the group consists of over 1,300 “cultural heritage professionals” who have preserved materials from over 4,500 websites. This effort, known as Save Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO), ensures that such websites will not be lost if Ukrainian servers go down or are otherwise disrupted by the war.
… and push for transparency
Second, historians can push for and governments can enable transparency and ease of collection of our own documents. Historian Matthew Connelly has long pointed to problems of overclassification as well as destruction and deletion of sources in the United States. Meanwhile many archives and governments have devoted surprisingly little thought to how to preserve born digital documents, such as e-mails. It is almost impossible to read a floppy disc without a highly specialized machine so what will happen with our current communications on platforms like Microsoft Teams? Concerted plans for born digital preservation are necessary to avoid the strange paradox of an era that had abundant information, but where little is preserved. Finally, the internet itself is surprisingly unstable. Link rot is a pervasive problem: one study foundthat 50 percent of links in Supreme Court decisions since 1996 had rotted. Only one major non-profit institution, the Internet Archive, seeks to crawl and preserve the web for future generations. To prevent the abuse and misuse of history, it is time for greater attention to preserving materials that enable history-writing in the first place.
… and use their knowledge productively in the digital age
Third, scholars can facilitate the creation of easily-accessible knowledge. For my own part, I have focused my efforts here on my 100-person international history class of upper-level undergraduates at UBC. Every year, I ask students to create a Wikipedia article about a person, event, place, or organization which does not yet have an article or only has a stub article (meaning a page exists but with only a few sentences.) Students choose the articles themselves and can draw on their own expertise, e.g. translating secondary sources from different languages. This past semester, students created articles on topics including the Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in Canada, the Invasion and Occupation of Monaco in World War II, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Dominican Republic (DOMREP), the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and Anne Zelensky, a French feminist. (For more details on how I implement my Wikipedia assignment in a 100-person lecture course at UBC, check out this podcast. For a list of the articles created by students in 2022, see here.) Less than two months after their creation, my students’ articles had received over 250,000 views. It may seem impossible to counter the endless stream of distorted TikTok videos, but if we are going to intervene online, Wikipedia is one excellent place to start.
Heidi Tworek is a Canada Research Chair and associate professor of international history and public policy at the University of British Columbia. Her work examines the history and policy around media, hate speech, health communications, international organizations, and platform governance. Her most recent book “News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945” was published in 2019. Tworek is committed to bringing a historical sensibility to policy discussions. She regularly writes policy briefs on topics including Covid-19 communications, online harassment, and platform governance. https://www.heiditworek.com/about