History can be a weapon or a shield. Almost since the first historians, politicians for good and ill have tried to manipulate the past to support their agendas in the present. The first Roman emperor, Octavian Augustus Caesar, appealed to a sanitized version of history to cloak his dictatorship as a republic — a tactic also adopted by Mussolini. In ancient Egypt, Thutmose III hated the pharaoh Hatshepsut so much that he literally attempted to erase her from history by destroying her images and cartouches. More recently, the Southern myth of the “Lost Cause” distorted historical fact to try to rehabilitate a war fought for the right to own others and to justify continued racism. And then there’s Donald Trump. He is, as Eric Alterman put it in the New Yorker, the “king not only of lies but also of ahistorical assertions.”
Historians have been complicit in these misuses of history, but more often they have held the line against simplistic politicization. The Internet age makes this challenging. The abuse of history for present aims is dangerously ubiquitous, and false and manipulated versions of the past can spread easily. It was inevitable that the abuse would migrate to Twitter, a free-for-all of digital lawlessness. Historians have not stood idly by, however. Their Twitter threads have emerged as a response, with scholars countering abuses in multiple series of linked tweets that provide the actual history, context, sources and often additional reading. The phenomenon has grown visible enough that there’s even been a backlash, most recently expressed in an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a literature professor who dismisses public engagement by historians as “pedantic.” It is not. It is a valuable public good, a way to “show the receipts” in something close to real time.
Kevin Kruse, a Princeton history professor, has become the face of the phenomenon through his repeated takedowns of conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, a prolific author with no apparent historical training who writes political hit pieces justified by bad history. But Kruse has company. Other historians have also taken to social media and other digital outlets to share their knowledge and expertise to a larger audience in a much more timely way than traditional academic publishing allows. The classics scholar Sarah Bond, for example, frequently points out the intentional misuse of ancient history; in an article in Hyperallergic, she noted its use as a foundation for white supremacy. She highlighted the very real implications of false views of ancient history as white, writing that it “provides further ammunition for white supremacists today, including groups like Identity Europa, who use classical statuary as a symbol of white male superiority.” As for D’Souza, in a recent book, “The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left,” he argues that Hitler learned how to commit genocide from Democratic policies in the United States. As a Holocaust historian, I felt obligated to engage with this ridiculous and ahistorical weaponization of bad history, and did so in a Twitter thread.
Abuse can take the form of organized campaigns of disinformation, or it can be prominent people like D’Souza peddling historical nonsense — and people like President Trump, who claimed recently that the Soviet-Afghan war was about preventing terrorists from entering the Soviet Union. “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President,” the Wall Street Journal unequivocally declared.
Online media sites like Twitter allow scholars to reach thousands of people they may never have reached in an accessible way. Academic engagement on Twitter has been called “shallow scholarship,” but precisely the opposite is true; the very medium requires concision, structure and clarity. We are forced to address historical abuses directly, simply and publicly — not always our strong suit — but the form does not simplify the content or the message, only its delivery. Our history threads are time-consuming to write and research, but they string together multiple tweets in a narrative form that includes references and is easily digestible.
By dismantling bad history, brick by brick, historians online are modeling for readers the kind of critical interaction with sources we so desperately need. We confront black and white polemic with nuance, complexity and historical context while documenting our interpretations: We provide scholarly and primary sources for interested readers to follow. In a world of both alleged and real fake news, the ascendance of the publicly engaged scholar benefits the public arena. Few Twitter historians seek fame or self-aggrandizement — and we are certainly not “clinging to shreds of authority,” as Sam Fallon wrote in his Chronicle article. Legitimate scholars acting in good faith are authorities and experts. Sharing that knowledge with the world does not make them condescending. Why would historians, so often accused of existing aloof from society, buried in esoterica, be condemned for reaching out to the public while avoiding unintelligible jargon?
The criticism persists, however. Last year, a historian argued (on Twitter) that engaging with people like D’Souza served no purpose other than to promote their work. In the Journal, Peggy Noonan linked scholars to what she saw as a social media “full of swarming political and ideological mobs.” She singled out literary scholars for denouncing books, calling them “tormentors” who were “excited by it and prowl for more prey.” Journalism professor and political theorist Corey Robin decried what he called the “historovox”: a “complex” of scholars and journalists. This historovox results only in “pseudo-academic” and “superficial commentary,” he wrote. And Fallon, in his Chronicle article, labeled long-form Twitter threads as “data dumps” and “fact grubbing,” dismissing as “literalist” the factual contextualization of history while burying the reader under a formidable avalanche of postmodernist jargon.
Historians are not seeking to shame purveyors of false history. While the backlash may cause those individuals and their hardcore supporters to cling more fervently to their beliefs, that is, to my mind, beside the point. Though the phenomenon of “dunking on Dinesh” can be entertaining, we are not so naive as to imagine that we will change the minds of racists, dilettantes and grifters. In my sparring with Polish far-right nationalists, for example, I have no illusions that they will have an epiphany and see the proverbial light. Instead, I and others write to reach the interested onlooker and to provide a counternarrative to dangerous uses of history that flood the Internet. Comments from readers of these threads suggest that we are doing just that.
Responding to a thread, one user wrote, “I’m learning all kinds of interesting history, put in context, by university professors and other historians who actually know what they’re tweeting about. How refreshing on Twitter!” A social worker commented, “I find the history threads on here endlessly helpful in understanding my clients historical and societal trauma, teaching my students/supervisees context for client issues, & resource for fighting current policies.” Some people reading the tweets are learning history they would not have encountered ordinarily from experts whose work they may have never been exposed to. Another Twitter user wrote, “I always learn something and more importantly appreciate historians that set the record straight.” This makes them informed and more hopefully critical of the messaging they may be receiving elsewhere. One user noted that “I am learning more from these Twitter threads than I have since college. Many thanks.”
Of course, these comments are anecdotal and don’t prove that historians’ threads are changing the world, but they are representative of the responses.
When right-wing conservatives or Polish nationalists repeat old anti-Semitic tropes, it is important to rebut them with scholarly authority — in public. When D’Souza smears the Democratic Party by claiming it inspired Nazis and has always been the party of racists, it is critical that a historian speak truth to (social media) power. When the president of the United States deploys an ignorance of medieval history in support of his wall on the southern border, it is vital that a medieval historian point out that the “actual European Middle Ages simply did not work the way Trump apparently thinks they did … medieval walls had more to do with reassuring those who lived inside them than with dividing self from other.”
History reverberates in our present. And there are always those who would mobilize simplistic, biased or simply false versions of history to support real harm being done in the present. When history is wielded as a weapon particularly by white supremacists and right-wing nationalists, who better to stand on the battlements then those historians best prepared to fight back?