Historians need to understand how social media works to bring a better story online

In August 2015, Ty Seidule went viral.

Dressed in his US Army uniform, with epaulettes on each shoulder, the former professor and head of West Point’s history department starred in a 5-minute video for conservative website PragerU explaining why slavery was the most important cause of the American Civil War. War. The video had 34.4 million views on the PragerU site, 12 million views on Facebook and 2.6 million views on YouTube. It was, at the time, one of the most viewed historical videos ever recorded.

Seidule is not the first historian to claim that slavery caused the American Civil War, an assessment shared by almost everyone in the profession. So why did her video go viral? Timing mattered. Less than two months earlier, a 21-year-old woman named Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people. Photographs of Roof showed him waving the Confederate flag, igniting an on-and-off debate about the flag’s continued presence in American life. The framing mattered too. The cause of the war was presented as a question, not as a final conclusion; the alleged controversy surrounding the issue was brought to the fore in the first ten seconds of the video. Finally, the producer of the video counted: the financial resources of PragerU allowed the distribution of the video on the social web. Analysis found that PragerU was in the top ten political spends on Facebook.

So how the online story is brought to our attention has little to do with the accuracy of the information. This is one of the arguments for my next book, History, Shaken Up: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Changed the Past. Instead, the dominant factors that draw our attention to online story content are algorithms, social media, the way the content is framed, its relevance to the news cycle, politics. , business motives, power dynamics, disinformation and disinformation campaigns, and our own perceptions of history and its role in society. Content does not make it to the top of the newsfeed because of its scientific or factual merits. Political agendas and business agendas are almost always at stake, with the social web prioritizing attributes more content than its veracity Where precision.

Why is this important? Because today there are millions of story videos, story blogs, story memes, story podcasts, story social media accounts, and news articles. historically informed on the web competing for our attention, advancing political and business agendas, and actively reshaping what we know about the past. Some content goes viral; other content does not. Some have millions of views; some are barely visible. Some are correct; some are not. Some are created by professional historians and informed by scholarship; others are created by journalists, history buffs, teenagers, amateurs, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists and foreign disinformation agents. It can often be difficult to determine which content is created by whom.

The sum effect has been the creation of a vast and expansive universe of historic content over the past two decades, which is now as large as any category of content on the web, if not larger. This content shapes what people know about history. A 2020 study by the Frameworks Institute found that pop culture, social media, and news media play an increasing role in how audiences think about the past. High school teachers tell me many times that their students form their ideas about the story from what they see on social media. A student told me that she and her peers get their story from Twitter threads, opinion pieces, press articles, and Wikipedia, and her younger brother gets her story from 15 minute videos on YouTube. Another student told me that she watched five story videos on YouTube every day while cooking dinner. A reporter told me that she gets her story mostly from Instagram, while a high school student in California told me that she gets her story mostly from TikTok. The way we understand, learn and communicate history has been completely transformed by technology. Historical information is now a fragmented and atomized part of the news feed, intertwined with the onslaught of information that is reshaping our perceptions of reality every day.

My book History, Disturbed is mapping this vast universe to better understand how the social web has changed our understanding of the past. It digs beneath the surface to reveal what programs are at work, what tactics are used to gain visibility, how platforms dictate which pasts we meet and never see, and how internet users can be better consumers of media. historical information online. As the PragerU video clearly shows, historical online content that adheres to and aligns with the values ​​of the social web is more likely to be visible than the content that doesn’t. To know why, we need to better understand how this universe of content came into being and how the social web creates the tangled complexity of the story we see on our phones, computers and tablets every day. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media aren’t just rewriting the present tense; they also rewrite the past.

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