September 27, 2021

A Tale of Two Viruses: Historical Negationism in the Historical Community

I have taken a step back from all things historical, not only because of Covid-19 but also because of the alarming frequency in which history is being used maliciously, especially among the historical community. I thought that they of all people would know the harms of historical negationism and how important it is to prevent the spread of it.

Historical Negationism is a kind of illegitimate historical revisionism (typically done by non-historians) created to support a particular political or ideological agenda. It's has been heavily featured in the past 5 years in fake news, memes, and on social media. 

These might look familiar:

Click Here and Here to read why this is not true. 

Click Here to read why this is not okay.

News Flash:

They are also just the tip of the iceberg of the rampant historical negationism that is occurring.  Holocaust denial, "Lost Cause" Rhetoric, and "Clean Wehrmacht" myths are prevalent examples of historical negationism and how harmful historical negationism is. 

When I first saw these misconstrued historical "facts" I assumed it was a limitation of the medium. Memes can't fit a lot of text, so the whole story would never fit. My first instinct was to try and combat misinformation. Surely people wanted to know the truth and would not want to knowingly share harmful misinformation. I was wrong. 

Throughout the 16 years that I've been blogging, there has been a shift in information pathways. In college, professors would badger us that we, as future historians, would not have the issue of piecing together what happened using scant fragments but would be overloaded with primary sources. We were being trained for an entirely new problem in history: How to sift through and find truth and relevance in the overload of records left behind. This is the way I approach information.
What I thought was an information sorting problem is actually part of a much bigger propaganda campaign designed to confuse, cause chaos, and promote malicious causes.  Researchers have dubbed this "The Firehose of Falsehood Propaganda Model". This model uses large amounts of repetitive information to take advantage of the human subconscious, most notably, the Illusory Truth Effect, and the Continued Influence Effect
The Illusory Truth Effect - The more times you hear or see something repeated it is easier for your brain to process and thus prefer that information making it seem more credible. 

The Continued Influence Effect- What people hear first has a lasting influence on how people think about a subject, even if the first information they heard has been debunked. 
Memes are a great medium for historical negationism because they are inherently meant to be repeated often. 

"18th-century women caught on fire on a regular basis, due to working around fires in long skirts." "George Washington had wooden teeth." "Quilts helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad." As historians, we get frustrated that these myths won't die. Historical myths are the Continued Influence Effect and the Illusory Truth Effect at work. Should you repeat myths to debunk them? That is still up for debate. Ultimately, these myths don't hurt people and our time should be focused on stopping history from being used maliciously.   

What Living Historians Can Do To Help

Share Responsibly. 

You do not have time to fact-check everything you share. Make an effort to fact-check things that make you upset and things that can impact people's lives. I don't expect anyone to fact-check cute cat stories but you should fact-check anything that might be using history with a social or political agenda to see if the entirety of the occurrence is present. If you don't have time to check, it's better to just not share it. 

- Share the Real Story. 

If you see historical negationism, take some time to share the real story. Remember, the Illusory Truth effect works both ways. There is evidence that you should not repeat falsehoods unnecessarily but can mention them when debunking.  

-Report to the platform.

If you see something harmful, report it. No, this is not censorship, this is moderation. If you see something harmful at historically themed events, it should be reported to the event organizers.        

-Teach Real History. Many of us get monomaniacal with clothing and small details that we often forget to teach the history and culture part of history. This is where having nonpersonal interpretation can be helpful and necessary. You may not get a chance to tell spectators the whole story but posters, pamphlets, displays, and books can help give the proper context for what people see at historically themed events. Your information can be the information that sticks which allows people the ability to think more critically about new information they encounter about a topic. 

- Teach Critical Thinking in History- Many people have a poor understanding of history and historiography. Be sure to let people see how history is formed and why critical thinking and legitimate revisionism in history are important. These teachings can prevent the Illusory Truth Effect.         

- Include Reminders- Studies show that a simple reminder that all of the information that a person will be encountering should be taken with a grain of salt is effective at minimizing the Illusory Truth Effect, even if the reminder is given a few days in advance. Historically themed events should come with a disclaimer that contextualizes who the people are that are presenting information to the public and where this information comes from. 

As a living historian, it's your job to tell spectators about yourself. Are you a trained historian, public historian, research assistant, or someone who is very interested in history? All are welcome and valuable but that information should be offered upfront.  

Thank you for reading to the end. If you think this post is useful, please share! 


  1. Amen and amen, sister. We, collectively as a community, have a responsibility to keep the truth and the falsehoods separate, not "separate but equal" or "separate but I like this one better so we're going to go with it".

  2. This is interesting that I actually can see that someone's blog is attached to truth in the blogosphere. So much that I see, well, it's actually what I chose to see ... has been attached to my e-mail address by Google or whatever browser I'm involved ... and emerges as the first items on the 'feed' when I sign on. When I heard about browsers chasing ones' perceived interests years ago, I attempted to widen the topics so that what showed up first wasn't something that made my blood boil and kick in a natural inclination to attempt to correct the blatant misinformation propagated at such websites, but I had to stop. I was wasting too much time in responding ... spinning my wheels to provide a reasonable (to me at least) response to propagandist verbiage. I finally realized to a degree that I couldn't be saddled with trying to provide logical statements to propaganda 'machines'. I do occasionally look back at these sites to see if they've evolved to a view that takes into account reality and more understanding, but often it's more of the same patent
    entrenched rejectionism.

    1. It's crazy how everyone is practically stuck in different universes now due to algorithms.

  3. Oh, this was excellent. I'm sharing it on Twitter now!


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