Jason Steinhauer: Historians are weighing in as debates about past rage on social media
Only they can provide nuanced analysis based on academic research, Steinhauer says
Editor’s Note: Jason Steinhauer is the director of Villanova University’s Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
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.”
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 US 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 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 US 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 US 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.
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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.