The Role of Historians in “Unfaking the News” (#AHA19)

trump fake news

Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL reports on a very relevant panel held at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

This afternoon’s AHA19 panel, “Unfaking the News: Historians in the Media in the Age of Trump,” was a lively and much needed discussion on the role that historians can and should play in bringing their scholarship to the general public through mass media.  It was by far the most political session I’ve attended, but it’s hard to envision how that could have been avoided, considering the session’s namesake politician’s evident lack of historical understanding and (according to the Washington Post just two months ago) average of five false or misleading claims per day since becoming president.

The format was round-robin and each round of discussion was started with a question posed by session chair Kenneth Osgood.  This allowed for plenty of back and forth from the panelists and a good deal of follow-up questions and commentary from the audience.  What follows are two of the questions asked, with a summary of the responses from the historians on the panel.

1)  What’s an issue facing the country that cries out for meaningful historical understanding?

Nicole Hemmer – “The crisis of political journalism in the Age of Trump.”  According to Hemmer, the values of objective reporting have come under fire and the solution of some to just offer both sides has led to false equivalencies being created and unchallenged notions being promoted on the air and in print.

Jeremi Suri – “The bureaucracy (the ‘Deep State’).”  Despite its demonization, and view by some during the current government shutdown that it’s even unnecessary, Suri explained how bureaucracy is a good thing.  It makes our lives better and we need it.  At a conference with attendees from all over the country, his example of the air traffic controllers who are currently working without pay had easy resonance.

Julian Zelizer – “Partisanship and polarization … we need to understand just how deeply rooted this disfunction is or we’ll always be waking up like we’re Alice in Wonderland.”

Jeffrey Engel – “How much do we need to be educators, how much do we need to be citizens, and how do those responsibilities overlap?”  He continued, tongue in cheek, “When Trump sends that next tweet, we need to be able to step in and say, ‘well no, John Adams also tweeted that.’”  In some of the more sobering analysis from the panel, Engel admitted that over the past two years he has genuinely started to think that the Republic is in danger.  “What does the history we are talking about mean to us today?” he asked.  “These are unusual times.”

2)  Is Donald Trump just saying out loud what other presidents have thought in quiet?  Is the Trump Presidency unprecedented?

Hemmer – “The ‘just saying it out loud’ is important … that matters.”

Suri – “What makes Trump unprecedented is that despite the impossibility of the job, he doesn’t even try to do it.  He’s the first president to not be president.  He is running the Trump Organization from the White House.  He is using the office to help his family … He is running a mafia organization from the Oval Office … Every other president has tried to do the job; he is not doing the job.”

Zelizer – The unusual question we’re continuing to see played out is, “how far to the brink is the party of the president willing to go in support of their president?”

Engel – “Abraham Lincoln’s most recent thoughts didn’t immediately pop up on your phone.”  He continued, “If any other president had admitted to having an extramarital affair with a porn star, their world would have exploded.  It’s important to know just how far we have, and how far we have not, come in the last two years.”  Engel explained that never in the discussion of Stormy Daniels was anyone seriously questioning whether it happened.  The debate was always over whether it was illegal.  And for him, that’s a shocking development.  He also cautioned that historians have to be careful with how they use the word “unprecedented.”

Suri – “We need to move people away from the false use of history.”  For him, the word unprecedented means “beyond the pale for the context that we are in and the trajectory we’ve been on.”  He stressed that historians need to push back against the impulse to say that “everything is Hitler,” just as much as they need to push back against the narrative that “everything is normal.”

Osgood had opened the session with the observation that “these challenges were not invented by Donald Trump, but they have been exacerbated by him.”  Towards the end of the panel he added that for Trump, “Twitter is the source of his power.”  With that in mind, perhaps it’s a good thing that Kevin Kruse, Kevin Levin, the Tattooed Prof, and other so-called “twitterstorians” are practicing public history online and on the air.

Thanks, Matt!

“People fall for fake news because they fail to think”

Think

Another argument for education:

According to a recent article in the journal Cognition, psychologists Gordon Pennycook (University of Regina) and David Rand (MIT) argue that “individuals who are more willing to think analytically…are less likely to think that fake news is accurate.”

The Pacific Standard has a piece on Pennycook’s and Rand’s study.  Here is a taste:

If humans have extraordinary reasoning abilities, why do so many of us fall for fake news? As the mid-term elections near, and our Facebook feeds load up with dubious posts, it’s an unusually urgent question.

One school of thought suggests our analytical skills can actually work against us, since we use them to convince ourselves of the correctness of our prejudices. While there is evidence of that distressing phenomenonnew research suggests the answer may be simpler—and perhaps even fixable.

It links susceptibility to misinformation with intellectual laziness.

“The evidence indicates that people fall for fake news because they fail to think,” report psychologists Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina and David Randof the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Individuals who are more willing to think analytically … are less likely to think that fake news is accurate.”

In the journal Cognition, the researchers describe three studies featuring a total of 3,446 people. The main study, conducted in the summer of 2017, featured 2,644 participants recruited online, split nearly evenly between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters.

Participants were presented with 12 fake and 12 real news headlines, all presented in the format of a social media post. The fake items were split evenly between ones that would appeal to Trump supporters and Trump opponents.

Read the entire piece here.

Will Someone Please Explain to Donald Trump That He Did Not Denuclearize North Korea

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Here is Uri Friedman at The Atlantic:

Donald Trump got little of substance out of his summit with Kim Jong Un. But that didn’t stop him from making a triumphant, demonstrably false claim about how things went. Trump declared in an early-morning tweet that North Korea’s threat to America has been somehow neutralized altogether: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

In reality, Trump returned to America from the Singapore meeting having secured only a vague promise, not unlike others the North Koreans have broken in the past, about working toward the goal of denuclearization. Yet North Korea has just as many nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and nuclear facilities and personnel, and precisely as much fissile material, as before Trump and Kim shook hands and signed a document in which North Korea vowed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

 

Not only that, but the North Koreans have come away from the summit with a much more immediate pledge from the president to suspend U.S.-South Korea military exercises that the North has long viewed as a threat. The North Koreans may view their denuclearization commitment as a pie-in-the-sky pledge to give up their nuclear weapons once the nuclear-armed United States withdraws its protection for South Korea and ceases all hostile behavior toward North Korea. The statement they endorsed includes no details on how denuclearization will be implemented, how long it will take, or even what first moves the North will make toward that objective.

Read the entire piece here.

Mike Pence also believes that North Korea is now denuclearized.  Here is what he told the Southern Baptist Convention earlier today:

We certainly saw that in high relief over the last several days, didn’t we? Just this morning, the President returned from a historic summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. The President went to this meeting as, in his words, “on a mission of peace,” but with eyes wide open. And I can report, the meeting that took place was direct and honest, provocative, and productive. It resulted in a bold first step where North Korea’s leader committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. (Applause.)

This is what authoritarian populists do.  Trump and Pence spread false information and propaganda to rally their base in the hopes that their followers will not do the hard and difficult work of fact-checking.  It is the height of anti-intellectualism and evangelicals are especially susceptible to it.  And when people do fact-check, Trump and Pence demonize the fact-checkers as enemies of the state.

Trump: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

When Lesley Stahl asked Donald Trump in an off-camera meeting to explain “his barrage of insults aimed at journalists.” Trump responded:

‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you…So, put that in your head for a minute.”

Read all about it here.  This guy is a tyrant.

Is Mervis Gobbles a Real Person?

Earlier today I posted this album cover:

Gobbles

John Haas wonders if this album is legit:

Haas is right.  This is suspicious.  I have searched for Mervis Gobbles on Google, Google Books, and several other databases for which I have access.  I can’t find anything about him anywhere.

Is this a fake?  Or has anyone ever heard of Gobbles or his group?

“Fake News” is an Old Problem

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Thomas Hutchinson

Jackie Mansky, the humanities editor at Smithsonian.Com, reminds us that “fake news” has a long, long history in the American republic.  Here is a taste of her piece, “The Age-Old Problem of ‘Fake News’“:

Earlier echoes of John Adams’ frustrations can be found in laments by figures like Thomas Hutchinson, a British loyalist politician in a sea of American revolutionaries, who cried that the freedom of the press had been interpreted as the freedom to “print every Thing that is Libelous and Slanderous.”

Hutchinson’s bête noire was Sons of Liberty leader Samuel Adams, whose “journalism” infamously did not concern itself with facts. “It might well have been the best fiction written in the English language for the entire period between Laurence Sterne and Charles Dickens,” writes media historian Eric Burns in his book Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. (Burns borrows the title from the term George Washington used to refer to the media figures of the day. In a 1796 letter to Alexander Hamilton, Washington cites as a reason for leaving public office “a disinclination to be longer buffitted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.”)

Hutchinson, for his part, wailed that Samuel Adams’ writing in Boston Gazette particularly slandered his name. He believed that “seven eights of the People” in New England, “read none but this infamous paper and so are never undeceived.” Among other epithets, the Gazette called Hutchinson a “smooth and subtle tyrant,” as historian Bernard Bailyn notes in The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, whose purpose was to lead colonists “gently into slavery.”

In 1765, arsonists burned Hutchinson’s house to the ground over the Stamp Act though the loyalist was not even in favor of the hated tax. “They were old men, young men, and boys barely old enough to read, all of them jacked up on ninety-proof Sam Adams prose,” writes Burns about those behind the fire, the scene sharing eerie parallels to the 2016 shooting of a Washington, D.C. pizza shop provoked by insidious fake news reports.

Read the entire piece here.

The Latest from Sam Wineburg: Historians are Duped By Fake News More Often than “Fact Checkers”

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Here is the press release from Wineburg‘s Stanford History Education Group:

How do expert researchers go about assessing the credibility of information on the internet? Not as skillfully as you might guess – and those who are most effective use a tactic that others tend to overlook, according to scholars at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

A new report released recently by the Stanford History Education Group(SHEG) shows how three different groups of “expert” readers – fact checkers, historians and Stanford undergraduates – fared when tasked with evaluating information online.

The fact checkers proved to be fastest and most accurate, while historians and students were easily deceived by unreliable sources.

“Historians sleuth for a living,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, founder of SHEG, who co-authored the report with doctoral student Sarah McGrew. “Evaluating sources is absolutely essential to their professional practice. And Stanford students are our digital future. We expected them to be experts.”

The report’s authors identify an approach to online scrutiny that fact checkers used consistently but historians and college students did not: The fact checkers read laterally, meaning they would quickly scan a website in question but then open a series of additional browser tabs, seeking context and perspective from other sites.

In contrast, the authors write, historians and students read vertically, meaning they would stay within the original website in question to evaluate its reliability. These readers were often taken in by unreliable indicators such as a professional-looking name and logo, an array of scholarly references or a nonprofit URL.

When it comes to judging the credibility of information on the internet, Wineburg said, skepticism may be more useful than knowledge or old-fashioned research skills. “Very intelligent people were bamboozled by the ruses that are part of the toolkit of digital deception today,” he said.

Read the rest here.

A Fulbright Scholar’s Fake News Workshop

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Solvorn, Norway

Brianne Jaquette is on a traveling Fulbright scholarship in Norway in which she visits upper secondary schools and gives workshops on American culture and history. What a gig!

One of her workshops, which she writes about at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog, is on fake news.  Here is a taste:

It is not a huge surprise that fake news is a popular workshop. It is a big topic of interest not only in the U.S. right now but also across the world. I have found that Norwegian students are good at reading the news i.e. not just absorbing it but applying their critical thinking skills to what they are reading. However, many students I have talked to also get their information from social media, particularly Youtube commentators. While they have good answers about how to spot fake news on the internet–check your sources, find supporting information, etc.–the fact that they get so much information from Youtube makes me think that this lesson is worthwhile for them.

I usually start by asking for their examples of fake news. Many students will have an example in mind, and this can be a nice ice breaker. Often students think of funny examples, which get the room laughing. If they can’t think of any I usually throw out one that is reoccurring, like so and so celebrity is dead, or give them an example from the U.S. election last year, such as the Pope endorsed Donald Trump.

We discuss how fake news is stories that are posted to deliberately mislead the audience. I point out to them though that this is often done on purpose it is also important to consider that some posters and authors, for that matter, post things that are fake because they are unaware of the truth themselves. That is, while some people are trying to spread misinformation, other are just confused about the truth. I, then, mention the fact that there are fake news sites that generate fake news on purpose to parody or satirize the news. I use The Onion as an example (just in case you are wondering Norwegian students have no idea what The Onion is) and then ask them for their own examples.

Read the rest here.  High school teachers should definitely check out her resource links at the end of the post.

Libraries in the Age of Trump

Atlanta_Public_Library

Over at Pacific Standard, Katie Kilkenny has a nice piece on the importance of lending libraries in this era of fake news.  Here is a taste:

In the report, released Wednesday, Pew finds that the majority of American adults—61 percent—say their decision-making would be improved at least somewhat “if they got training on how to find trustworthy information online.” In this bewildering world of real and fake news, a clear majority—78 percent—believe that the library is still providing them with information that is “trustworthy and reliable.” It’s not just older generations who prefer this more traditional resource: Millennials are more likely to trust the library than all previous generations, including Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation.

Millennials are big fans of their local lending institutions in other ways as well. Eighty-five percent believe the library helps them “learn new things,” according to Pew, and 63 percent agree that it helps them “get information that helps them with decisions they have to make”—both higher proportions than any other generation measured. This research aligns with findings from Pew released earlier in the summer: In June, the research center found that Millennials were the most likely generation in America to have visited a library and used a library website in the past few months. Clearly, young adults’ constant access to social network news feeds and Amazon hasn’t diminished the charm of browsing through the stacks to find the right call number.

A majority of Americans studied say that libraries help them “grow as people” (65 percent) while a minority of Americans agree that libraries help them focus on the most important elements in their lives (49 percent), deal with a busy world (43 percent), and deal with a world where it’s hard to get ahead (38 percent). That last figure seems to suggest that most contemporary American library-goers aren’t just visiting the library for the quiet place to chill, but for specific information needs.

Read the entire piece here.

Museums in an Age of Fake News

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Canadian Museum of History (Wikipedia Commons)

This piece in the Toronto Star recently caught my attention.  In an age of fake news, museums are stepping up to the plate to help “separate fact from fiction and spark critical thinking.”

Here is a taste of reporter Stephanie Levitz’s article “In an era of ‘fake news’ people are turning to museums for facts.”

The value of people having tactile experiences with objects from history or science can’t be overstated, Beckel said. Where else but in a museum can one get a sense of the size of the dinosaurs?

But the value of challenging people’s understanding of those objects is equally important, said Lisa Leblanc, director of creative development for Canadian history hall at the Museum of History.

The “cacophony of channels” has put more information at people’s fingertips than ever before, but also allows for them to only engage with information that reinforces their world view, she said.

For museums to keep the public’s trust and also do their job sparking critical thinking, bursting those bubbles is important, she said.

Read the entire piece here.