Creating Accurate and Accessible Digital History in an Age of Online Misinformation
Here’s the basic problem. The world is moving online to an internet teeming with inaccurate and misleading historical information–and professional historians haven’t done enough to meet the challenge. Academic historians have all but ignored the very places where that misinformation is the most rampant: the social media giants YouTube (with 2.5 billion users) and TikTok (with about 1 billion users). Countering the inaccurate, misleading, and deceptive history on these platforms means academic historians need to start creating history in the short digital video format common to both.
We are in the midst of a staggering digital information revolution. Five billion people are on the internet worldwide. In the US, the number is over 300 million, representing over 90 percent of the population. The average user spends seven hours per day online. While online, they find history in websites, memes, and by watching digital videos on popular social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok. Students research school history projects on the internet. After they graduate, that’s where they get most of their history apart from what they might pick up at museums, historical sites, or documentaries they watch on television.
Much of this online history is inaccurate, misleading, or designed to deceive. Most online history is produced by a wide range of amateurs with limited historical knowledge. There’s good amateur history out there (the Crash Course videos are particularly good). But a lot of it sensationalizes history for clicks and attention or focuses on trivial issues (the history of the toilet, the story of George Washington’s false teeth). The amateurs often get facts wrong or misrepresent a topic because the don’t know enough history to understand the broader context and meaning. Although the mistakes are mostly innocent, they contribute to the spread of historical misinformation all the same.
Then there is outright disinformation. Well-funded political groups and private entities have produced a great deal of online history skewed to advance their own ideological, personal, or corporate agendas. This history ignores expert consensus and key historical facts. Most of this kind of misinformation comes from the political right and embraces a mythic version of the American past that expert historians rejected long ago, when they first tested it against actual historical evidence. Those continuing to push the mythic version downplay, ignore, or even try to eliminate competing histories. The more extreme partisans ban books in schools and libraries, rewrite curriculum to cut out unflattering topics, and pass laws trying to punish teachers for discussing slavery or racism in any meaningful way. Meanwhile, wealthy advocates have bankrolled the production of all kinds of internet content, including whole series of expensively made, well-produced videos, distributed online for free. The powerful financial and political backing behind these efforts have helped the long-discredited mythic narrative thrive online.
Thankfully, there is a growing number of historical experts online trying to counter the misinformation and disinformation. In the last few decades, museums, libraries, archives, and historical sites have dramatically updated their online interpretation and resources to match what historians know. Academic historians are all over platforms like Twitter, writing educational threads and doing real-time fact-checking by piling up historical evidence in replies and linking to reputable sources. Academic and non-academic historians alike have produced an audio library of excellent historical podcasts that bring to life a specific topic or time period, put today’s events in historical context, or discuss the historian’s craft. Historians continue to appear in long-form historical documentaries and educational videos (although these have limited reach online because they are almost always copyrighted and require rental, purchase, or a streaming-subscription to view).
For all they do online, experts historians have left enormous, critical areas of social media largely untouched, especially the hugely popular video platforms YouTube and TikTok. There might be a stray, pirated copy of an educational documentary on YouTube. There might be some new video content produced as part of a foundation or grant project. But there really isn’t a meaningful and sustained academic presence in the short-video format, the standard of today’s internet viewing culture.
Think about what this means. The very people who have made studying the past their life’s work are ceding one of the biggest educational opportunities in the history of mankind, mostly to ill-informed amateurs and political actors. As a result, online historical misinformation continues to flourish. And the historical profession becomes increasingly irrelevant to a public that gets most of its history from online spaces that academic historians refuse to enter. This is a crisis–a crisis of history education made worse by the failure of academic historians to appreciate their own historical moment.
My answer to that is an experiment I’m calling the “Three Minute History Project.” I’m hoping to show that historians can create interesting, informative content that develops an online viewership. There’s no big budget to produce this content (in fact, there’s no budget at all). All I have is nearly thirty years of experience teaching American history in a range of different formats, access to a research library, cameras and microphones I can borrow through the media center, and some basic-but-powerful online video-editing software. And I have something else, the one thing that makes the idea possible: smart and creative students.
My ultimate goal is to flood the internet with reliable historical content in the form of short digital videos. Getting there means showing academic historians that they and their students can create new content in the classroom and do it in a way that is repeatable over any of their courses. My hope is to convince historians of all kinds to do something like just this and that our collective work (done independently) can cover the history of the world far and wide, ancient to present. Imagine an enormous, free video-library of historically accurate, good-quality content that the public could access quickly and easily for whatever big (or even little) topic they want to learn about. That’s the idea: bringing accessible free history to the public in the online spaces they frequent the most.
The road to this wildly ambitious goal begins with creating a YouTube channel. The How-to guides basically all give the same advice. You need to create a “brand.” That brand needs to be consistent in style and form, with easily recognizable components: a similar format, a standard intro, the same person or people as “hosts,” videos of the same basic length and style. Viewers expect consistency, it’s how they develop the kind of attachment to a channel that keeps them coming back. And returning viewers is how you trigger the algorithms needed to reach a wide audience.
The most important step in that process is producing a constant supply of new content. New content needs to come regularly and reliably (i.e. “a new video at noon every Monday and Thursday”). That consistency induces people to subscribe to the channel because they want have the fresh content show up in their platform feed.
I took my first step toward making a new channel in spring 2022. I taught a digital history course built around creating short (3-5 minute) engaging, historically accurate videos. I made a list of topics at the start of the semester and had students choose one, research it, and collect primary sources and visual evidence to bring it to life. They wrote scripts with catchy openings and then put it all together in visually stimulating, fast-paced videos. The end result was a set of student-created videos that exceeded all my expectations.
But I realized I did not have enough videos to keep a channel running until I could create new ones. Every internet guide out there says that sustained content is the only way to build and keep an audience. YouTube is littered with dead channels that went silent after releasing a dozen or so “episodes.” I didn’t want this to be one of those. If I was going to do this, I was going to go all-in. On sabbatical working on a book during fall 2022, I knew I wasn’t going to have a chance to create new videos and that then next opportunity would be spring semester 2023 and my American Revolution course.
And that’s where this course comes in. This semester, we are going to produce short digital videos on the Revolution and finally launch the channel. Waiting to launch until the end of the semester will give the project enough content to carry through the rest of the year, when the videos from my fall semester courses will be ready to go. What better way to show that this kind of project-based teaching can accommodate any kind of history class than by offering a model to emulate myself.
(NOTE: It’s very unlikely this project will ever earn any kind income from the videos. If on the off chance that it does, you have my guarantee that any funds that come in will be spent to make more videos. This is a labor of love for history and the historical profession, which now more than ever, needs to show the world the value we bring to society. Anything that comes from pursing that goal will be strictly non-profit.