“It is the habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire.” – Thucydides
Had the man known as the “Father of History” seen today’s internet, he would be astonished by the accuracy of that quote. The internet has created a wealth of information for everyone to share and research, but it’s too easy for well-meaning individuals to fall prey to individuals. Recent controversies in the United States have underscored like never before the need to discern accurate, factual information from those alleged “truths” which are merely based in distortion, opinion and junk science. History, more than most other subjects, is an area which is vulnerable to such agendas. Unlike other arts and sciences, history is a truly subjective area of study, so much there is an old saying which, fair or not, holds true.
“The victors write the history books.”
One of the greatest examples of how perspective and perception can affect the way one views history is the current debate over the validity of flying the Confederate Battle Flag. There is an immense amount of misinformation and propaganda on both sides of this issue, and it has brought to light concerns about how individuals twist facts, pull ideas out of thin air, or purport to be experts when, in reality, they are little more than agenda-driven activists with an axe to grind and an audience. That being said, here are some very easy ways to help discern historical fact from fiction and propaganda.
Never rely solely on Wikipedia: Yes, it’s easy to use the world’s first open-source information database as a primary source, but that’s not so much lazy as it is dangerous. Wikipedia is best described as a really tricked-out card catalog, providing detailed abstracts which offer a great synopsis and survey of the subject matter. When one digs into the “Reference” section of wiki page, that’s when you tap into to the meat, and it’s also when one finds out quickly what is fact, what is fiction, and what is misinformation.
Be careful with Google and Bing: Search engines such as these are excellent for the casual information check, like finding out how to do a home repair or when did the first ice cream shop open, but hardcore history requires the ability to something Google and Bing simply can’t – discern what is real from what is propaganda. Here’s a good example: of the first ten Google listings under the search term “Confederate Currency,” half were actually collectible buyers instead of historical information. My goal was to learn about the origins of the currency, if the Confederate States of America had a central bank, and the sort of problems they had with counterfeiting. Only ONE website of the first ten offered this information – and since studies have shown most people don’t go beyond the first page of search results, it’s remarkably easy for someone to use Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to plant misinformation to suit their purposes. The more specific the search terms, the better.
There are great history websites which are extremely easy to navigate: The History Channel, despite its recent forays into reality-style programming, remains an excellent commercial source for history information that is of a survey variety. For those more academically inclined, the National Archives, Smithsonian Institution, and university libraries remain outstanding resources for locating primary source information. For some added research spice, check out the National Park Service and park services in your respective state – the NPS offers great resources, and some park services even offer links to primary sources of their respective areas of service.
Question the backgrounds of so-called “experts”: If you find a website with a testimonial or essay from an person claiming to be an expert, check their background. A bona fide expert will either have extensive field experience, or will be of an academic variety who is happy to provide their credentials to you. The easiest way in the world to spot a fraudulent “expert” is how they react to a credential request. If they are outraged or seem insulted, chances are they are not a real expert, but a paid spokesperson or, worse still, a person with an agenda. The exception to this rule is a world-renowned expert who readily provides their credentials on a regular basis. Regardless, the old Russian proverb of “trust, but verify” holds especially true here.
Check, recheck, and re-recheck: It sounds like common sense, but it’s easy to post a meme on Facebook or Twitter which shows a “historical fact” that is, in actuality, false or misquoted. Some of the greatest misrepresentations of history have actually come from the current Confederate Battle Flag debate – too many to list. But there are two assertions where are based entirely in rumor and propaganda: the slaves openly fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy from the start of the way (Pres. Jefferson Davis was flatly against it and didn’t authorize it until 1865, just months before Lee’s surrender) and Civil War surgeries occurred without anesthetic (also false – chloroform was widely available). On the flip side, surgery was a risky affair because camp hygiene was abhorrent (modern concepts of hygiene weren’t widely employed until the early 20th century), and slavery was not the reason the Civil War began (but it was a contributing factor to why the South was so hellbent on independence).
Watch the so-called “myth” websites: Many of these websites are steeped in propaganda and sources which are not even credible enough to be considered anecdotal, and they are also where so many memes and misinformation originates. Also, some of these sites are actually owned, operated, or sponsored by groups who either are, or are associated with, known hate groups. A great example of this “rabbit hole” is an article on the website VeteransToday, which actually contains some useful information for our fighting men and women. Unfortunately, this particular article, which claims to “bust” myths about the Civil War, is written by an individual who is active contributor to the Georgia Heritage Council’s website, a site which offers links to sites such as the League of the South, a known hate group. This isn’t liberal or conservative – this is fact, and many agenda-driven individuals do their best to obfuscate.
If you can’t trust your gut, don’t send or post: It’s easy to feel a sense of “electronic courage” when posting something like “If you don’t like it, move” or “Get out” or profanity-laden comments. This exercise of “freedom speech” does not absolve one from the consequences of said speech. Employers, advertisers and others who have a say in your fate, one way or another, can see this information and often it ends up in the hands of a decision maker. Remember, the Supreme Court did rule that businesses can terminate someone’s employment based on what they post online, that the freedom of speech does not absolve one from the consequences of said speech, that it only protects someone from government reprisal. There is great truth in the question “Do you talk to your momma’ with that mouth?” Apply that sensibility to the internet as well.
Last but not least…
Know at how to locate at least one primary source: A primary source is personal papers, first-hand accounts, interviews with the individuals involved, photographic records, or official records such as a journal, log entry, or ledger of some sort. Second-hand accounts, rumors, newspaper features such as anniversary editions, and papers from those who reference those sources are not primary. The personal correspondence between Common Sense author Thomas Paine and publisher Ben Franklin would be consider primary – the opinions of a South Carolina legislator who cites Thomas Paine, despite its historical significance in its own right, is not primary. A website which cites Common Sense and that legislator isn’t even secondary in the true sense. Read the primary source, make your own judgment, and discern accordingly.
It’s easy to make mistakes which haunt someone online because they want to state an opinion. If you don’t know that much about a subject but have a passionate opinion, that’s fine but please, be civil and show some semblance of knowledge on what you are talking about. It’s easy to get caught in the backwash of someone’s agenda, and history rarely judges such individuals kindly.