Historians on the Battleground of Social Media: Lessons from Eight Years of AskHistorians

"Historians on the Battleground of Social Media: Lessons from Eight Years of AskHistorians" was a panel presentation at the American Historical Association's 2020 Annual Meeting. It was released as a special edition episode for the AskHistorians Podcast.

 

Introduction, presented by Peyton Hunter Jones

Hello everyone! I am pleased to welcome you all to “Historians on the Battleground of Social Media: Lessons from Eight Years of AskHistorians”! Before we begin I would like to acknowledge on behalf of the panel that this year we meet on the territory of the Lenapé people's. We honor the Lenapé peoples, along with the Unkechaug, Shinnecock, Matinnecock, Montaukett, and Setalcott nations, whose historical and contemporary homes stand along the nearby Waters of both the north and south shores of Long Island.

I am Peyton Hunter Jones, a member of the AskHistorians mod team. I have been involved since 2013 under the nom de guerre Georgy K. Zhukov.

AskHistorians was founded eight year ago with the intention of providing a platform where historians could engage directly with the public. Hosted as a forum - or subreddit - on Reddit.com, AskHistorians is connected to one of the largest sites on the internet. Since its founding, it has grown to become a community with hundreds of historian-contributors - known in the parlance of the site as "Flaired Users" or simply "Flairs" - whose expertise spans the breadth of human history. Averaging nearly 2 million unique visitors per month, making it the world’s largest public history community, AskHistorians is a major portal for public engagement with academic-minded history.

Because of its prominence, every day, as Moderators of the site, we find ourselves on the battleground for control of public discourse. We have worked over the years to build up a reputation for the site as one which stands against trolls, bigots, and those who seek to weaponize and distort history. We know how necessary it is to actively fight back as they attempt to disrupt conversations, if not attempt to control them to create their own, false narratives.

The panelists today, all members of the AskHistorians Modteam as well as Flaired contributors in their own right, bring their experience and expertise in running the site to discuss the place of Social Media in the historical profession. They will be looking at both its unprecedented ability for public outreach, as well as how to combat the more unsavory elements that inevitably attempt to poison the experience for all.

 

"Who Asks the Questions? User Demographics and Trending Topics on AskHistorians" presented by Cassidy Percoco of the Fenimore Art Museum

As moderators of AskHistorians, we have a unique power to influence it by removing questions and attempts at answers. However, our power is limited by the fact that we are not the ones posting questions, for the most part, and we cannot make the question-askers post what we want.

Periodically, the AskHistorians mod team holds a survey of the userbase, typically in response to a particular milestone of subscribers to the forum. Our fifth and most recent survey was held after the subreddit reached one million subscribers in this past year, and included more specific demographic questions as we had been working to improve the diversity of the subreddit. As in past years, the gender balance held firm, with 81% identifying as male – but it transpired that among new users, the balance was improving, with 72% identifying as male, 24% as female, and3% as non-binary. A strong majority were in their twenties, and a majority were American: 62% were from North America, nearly all from the United States or Canada; and 28% from Europe, a third of which were from the UK. 72% of our users were native English speakers, but there was again improvement: of our newer members, only 63% were. 45% of our users identified as a sexuality other than straight, and 4% identified as transgender.

Given these demographics, one of the most common problems we face is that our question-askers most readily identify with straight, white, cis men in history. For many, the attraction of history begins with the most basic question of “what would I have been doing, if I had been born in the past?” This perspective explores the past through the eyes of an everyman with these qualities: an infantry soldier at Dunkirk, a lone gunman in the Old West, a peasant farmer in generic “pre-modern Europe” – and, unfortunately, enslavers in the American South and non-Jewish Germans in WWII.

Another avenue for the formulation of questions comes through media consumption, which, given that our userbase is largely made up of white American men in their twenties, tends to reflect a narrow range of subjects. Game of Thrones was a typical topic, leading to questions like the following highly-upvoted ones: “Did people in the middle ages ever ACTUALLY plan battles using miniatures on top of a big table map?”, “What were brothels really like in the medieval period?”, and “Were people super mean in the middle ages?” Games of Thrones has both reflected and enforced stereotypes about the Middle Ages – such as the idea of European countries being homogeneous white spaces – so it is both frustrating to see it frequently asked about, and rewarding to see experts point out the ways it is incorrect to a large audience.

Another media property that informs our main demographic is the computer game Crusader Kings II. The influence of this game’s mechanics leads to highly upvoted questions like “Did medieval society consider [social] ranks to be part of a strict hierarchy [...] or was the "chain of command" (so to speak) much more fluid?”, or “How common was excommunication in the High Middle Ages and how were these people treated?”

In both cases, most of the people who were brought to wonder about the past due to these properties typically ended up asking about non-gendered or assumed-male norms, and the lives and customs of the powerful.

Other games that sparked curiosity include The Witcher and Kingdom Come: Deliverance. The latter inspired one of our most furious threads, which highlighted the problems of having an audience of young white men accustomed to being the audience for media aimed directly and solely at them. The question was: “People are getting extremely upset because there are no black people in Kingdom Come: Deliverance. How accurate is this for 16th century Bohemia?” The response linked to an older answer that described the existence of a number of non-white people in medieval Europe, and then focused more broadly on the way that game designers and players pick and choose which aspects of history are important for “accuracy” and which are easily brushed away in favor of game mechanics. I will quote from it:

"Thus, historical video games are never historically accurate. They can't be for while the world of past people is approachable to us via scholarship and description, it cannot be played for experiencing it is too far removed from any tangible mechanic that can be "playified". Thus, what historical video games do is to shroud themselves in historical authenticity rather than accuracy. Authenticity is different from accuracy in that the former represents in lockstep with cultural collective memory what feels right about a specific past rather than necessarily what really transpired in said past."

In response, we had heated arguments that non-white characters would “break immersion” and a general failure to understand the distinction between accuracy (correct facts) and authenticity (what “feels right”). I think most of us consider it a low point, in terms of the white male identity politics of our main demographic overcoming their interest in history. This sort of thing is problematic from educational and social justice standpoints, but it adds an extra layer of problem for us as a website.

The success of AskHistorians lies in its community of flaired users. If we have flairs in a certain subfield, we can generally assume that answers to questions relating to that subfield will be answered.

A user who wishes to obtain flair in, for instance, the Soviet forces in World War II would not have a hard time doing so if they have the expertise, because we get questions on this topic very frequently. Building up a slate of good answers for a flair based in the Middle Ages in a particular European country would also not be difficult, as in the past week we received questions like “Who pays for lodging in a medieval royal court?”, “Did it make any difference to medieval commoners who was king?” and many more, which allow an answerer to pick a region or country and write.

A user with expertise in ancient Ghana, women’s education in Tang-dynasty China, or gay culture in late nineteenth century France, to pick a few representative subjects, will have a much harder time getting a flair because they will not have questions to answer. Without the benefit of the flair itself or the support of the community in the private subreddit, they are likely to drift away – and then when we do eventually get a question that deals with the subject, there is nobody around with the ability to answer it. And then, because the question didn’t receive an answer or much attention, the subject dies again. Interest in topics or concepts follows a vicious cycle: if more is shown, more people will become curious about it and ask more detailed questions.

In April 2017, we got a good look at this effect via a rare AskHistorians-specific meme. As a very serious community, the forum as a whole does not have many in-jokes beyond the irritating posting of “removed” that some of our users like to perform on popular questions. But on April 27, 2017, a user named “misyo” posted a question that seemed to truly capture the interest of everyone on Reddit that day. “I'm a hot blooded young Roman man of the late Empire hitting the streets of Rome for a night out with my mates and I've got sestertii burning a hole in my purse. What kind of vice and wanton pleasures are available to me?” they asked. This received over 7,000 upvotes, many many more than is normal for a popular question. Over the following days, other users copied the basic text, changing up the ethnicity, period, and currency for different settings. This might be the clearest example of interest in a topic – what a historical “bad boy” could enjoy – perpetuating further interest in the topic.

This particular type of mimesis also seemed to push users to step outside of the “straight, white, cis, male” box. The next day, users posted versions with “I'm a hot blooded young Arab man of the early Rashidun Caliphate”, “I am a hot-blooded young British woman [in] the Victorian era hitting the streets of Manchester”, and “I'm a hot blooded young Nahuatl man of the early Aztec Empire”, as well as a handful of others. Remarkably, instead of asking about ancient Greece, medieval England, Viking-era Scandinavia, and pre-revolutionary New York, this meme spurred our users to think outside the box and pick protagonists who weren’t white men and, in some cases, settings that do not receive much attention on the subreddit.

Over the past few years, the mod team has been making a deliberate effort to improve the diversity of the subreddit, both in terms of the demographics of the userbase and of the types of expertise found among the flairs.

The most involved step has been to increase the strictness of our moderation with regard to our interpretation of offensive behavior: instead of treating this process as a way to find and get rid of bigots, we are trying to make sure that the subreddit isn’t pushing marginalized people away or diminishing their perspectives. We require both question askers and answerers to censor slurs quoted from primary sources so that the people those slurs refer to don’t have them pushed in their faces when reading about their own history. We do not allow usernames that contain any kind of offensive or demeaning language, even beyond the use of slurs and even if it seems to be reclamatory, for the same reason. We also no longer allow questions written from the first-person perspective of someone committing violence against a marginalized person (a slaveowner, Nazi, or rapist, typically), and take a harder line on apparently comprehensive responses that don’t adequately deal with marginalized perspectives – for instance, an answer on indigenous vs. colonizer conflict that inherently treats the colonizers as “protagonists” and indigenous peoples as “antagonists” or voiceless Others.

And it’s working! You can see this in the data harvested in the most recent survey: we are attracting more women, those who speak English as a second language, and people with different sexualities. Anecdotally, I have noticed many more questions coming from women. We are also seeing many more questions on varying topics and from varying viewpoints: questions about working-class women, about indigenous communities from their own viewpoints, about India and China. We’ve also had an increase in women applying for flair. Of course, these are first steps, and we hope to increase the diversity of our demographics in all areas in the years to come – but it is very encouraging for us, and, I think, for what it shows could be possible for other communities.

 

"Against the Grain: Countering 'Internet Ideology' with Historical Thinking", presented by William Knight of the Ship's Company Living History

Good afternoon, historians, students of history, and those of you listening to this on podcast, whoever you are. My name is Will. I’m from the internet. I remember when that was a really odd thing to say, and now people just kind of nod and say ‘oh yeah, I come from there myself. What part?’ Then I tell them ‘Reddit’ and they make their apologies and back away quickly. But in seriousness, thank you for having us here in the august halls of the AHA conference.

I joke about Reddit’s reputation, but the issues with Reddit are not a laughing matter. After 2016, this is apparent even to the most casual observer of internet culture.Though they have since been quarantined or dissolved, hate subs like incels, the Donald and The Red Pill have done their damage to internet culture and to our society, damage that continues to reverberate.

But while the infamy of these subreddits is deserved, the problems on Reddit go deeper. The problems of Reddit go to the heart of the ideology of the website and its users. Moreover, the problems of Reddit and its cause, this unspoken, shared ideology, is not Reddit’s alone, but it sits at the heart of much of the thinking underlying the internet - the thinking both of its users and of its current overlords. I want to talk to you about this ideology, and its flaws. Because if we examine this ideology we will learn a great deal about the state of history in our national consciousness and the damage that the neglect of history has caused. And if we look to history, and history education, then we may be able to find a solution.

To see this ideology, we can look at the posts of Redditors, and social media users generally. Show me a man’s shitposts and I will show you the man - and his ideology. Particularly on AskHistorians, our question-and-answer format means that the questions people ask tell us a great deal, because no question is without its unspoken premises. Any question about history tells us how people think historical causality works, what changes through history and across cultures and what doesn’t, what forces shape the course of history and what matters in history.. Most of all, of course, any question tells us what people are interested in - what they value. In turn, these assumptions about history show us what they think matters about -humanity- and what is worth studying about other human beings. Here are some questions we have gotten:

 

  • Did firearms really give Conquistadors an advantage over Native Americans?

  • Why was the sling used so extensively and for so long in warfare when the bow was probably far more effective?

  • Why were the Chinese advanced in so many technologies, but so behind in plumbing?

  • Why did the "Western and northern" civilization become much more advanced than the "cradle of civilization"?

  • Why weren’t the Native Americans more advanced?

  • Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all share substantial theology, despite being traditional enemies. Was ‘pan-Abrahamism’ ever seriously considered or appealed to?

  • Was Caesar's personality the cause of his assassination?

  • Why didn't "The West"/Europe really discover and especially tried to live in America before Columbus?

 

Now, this isn’t a statistically representative sample, but a group selected to illustrate this unspoken ideology. Many questions we get are more innocuous or even very perceptive, but the ones I selected do show the kinds of unspoken premises that I am talking about. When you list them out, and then put them together, you can see a picture of the kind of ideological framework many Redditors are working from. Now of course much of these elements are an old story for most of us - Great Men, the West, the teleology of progress through discrete stages, the history of Ideas and Isms. This is history as it was written in the 18th and 19th centuries, much of the 20th and the history that still dominates YouTube Channels, general ed high school textbooks, movies and fathers-day gift books alike. But I want to emphasize a few elements that are particularly important and I think particularly troubling, that are more unique to Reddit. The common thread between these are that these are the most STEM oriented assumptions, the ones that view history merely as a manifestation of biology or a universal anthropology or psychology. When combined with a reflexive presentist and unthinkingly culturally chauvinist viewpoints I also listed, the results of this can be dire. The relationship between these assumptions and Reddit’s worst impulses is much closer than it may appear. And of course, this view is not unique to Reddit. I should repeat, though, that this ideology is not universal or even dominant among our users, many of whom seek us out specifically because we break the mould of the site. Reddit is full of misfits like this. But nonetheless this ideology is dominant on much of the site and is in some sense normative for the site as a whole. In pushing back against it, we set ourselves up as countercultural. So what is this ideology?

First, let’s talk about the idea of ideologies as historical agents. This is harder to see in the questions I listed, but it is present nonetheless behind many questions. My friend Cait loves to quote one of her teachers as telling her that Islam is not a historical actor - only Muslims are. This can be extended to any ideology or religion - it is the people who adhere to a belief who act, not the beliefs themselves. But Reddit disagrees. Figures beloved by Redditors like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris spin a narrative of ideology (especially religion) as an active agent that effectively possesses the adherent, dictating their actions. Religion, Dawkins tells us, is a ‘mind virus’ that through self-reference makes thought outside of its framework impossible. To Harris, different ways of seeing the world are the ‘software’ the runs on the ‘hardware’ of our brains. One could reprogram oneself, perhaps, but as long as you’re running the mental program then your actions will be determined by it. Looking at history with this assumption, the people of the past become automatons controlled by their beliefs. Their actions can be explained, or rather explained away, with a simple reference to their creed. The complex motivations of human beings are flattened into the sum of a person’s ideological and religious beliefs.

The dark side of this argument becomes clear once we see how it is applied to ideologies and religions of The Other - particularly Islam. If religion is a self-referential piece of software running in the computer that is our brain, then we need only know the nature of a religion - spoiler alert, it’s very bad - before we understand everything we need to know about its adherents, their motivations, and their future actions. Very quickly this kind of ideological determinism is used to justify bigotry or even violence against those ideologies that are deemed threats. Once this viewpoint is embraced, a seemingly rational inhabitant of Reddit’s skeptical communities becomes a frothing fanatic posting ‘deus vult’ crusader memes on alt-right message boards. This is a major path to radicalization online.

Secondly, let’s review the idea that technology is determinative in history. Not just technology, but gadgets - discrete, material inventions that transform the world, like movable type or gunpowder. This distinction is important - while properly technology refers both to physical artifacts and how they are used in their social, economic and political context, gadgets are seen de-contextualized. They act on history, and social organization, economics and culture - rather than these shaping technological development, they are seen merely as outgrowths of technology, the real force behind history. As an illustration of this, the word ‘effective’, particularly in a technological context, is one of the words we encounter most frequently in questions-people think of technology in simple terms of better or worse, and do not ask 'effective for what?’.

I see this all the time in questions about my own field of study - the weapons and armour of the late middle ages and early modern period. Questions often assume that weapons exist outside of their cultural and tactical context and that they shape tactics in a simple uni-directional way. The introduction of gunpowder is assumed to explain both European dominance over those peoples they colonized and the decline of the knight - rather than both stories being far more complicated. This means that there is no awareness of how technology is an answer to problems that people encounter in a social context and thus that all technology needs to be seen as a solution to a discrete problem in a certain context, not as a matter of objective superiority.

This view of technology leads into the final part of Reddit’s worldview I wished to highlight - that history is linear and teleological, progressing from primitive simplicity to advanced sophistication. This is not a merely descriptive viewpoint, but a deeply moral one - the march of progress is good. An Australian colonist with an Enfield musket is better than an Aboriginal person with a boomerang. Combine this with Reddit’s ideological determinism, which is also laden in unspoken value judgements, and you get a good picture of human history writ large. It is a march out of the primitive into the sophisticated, out of the superstitious into the rational, out of darkness into light. All the cultures of the past existed in order to progress into something greater, which is to say the society of the present day United States and Europe. This is Whig history, but it is more than that implies. It priveleges the white over the non-white, the ‘Western’ over the ‘Oriental’, the ‘Rational’ over the ‘Superstitious’ - it is an ideology of cultural supremacy. Moreover, it is an ideology that blinds its adherents to the full humanity of both past peoples and those of other cultures today. By taking technology and belief outside of their context, it outright de-humanizes the subjects of its inquiry and sees them as passive objects of these technological and ideological forces. But since technology and ideology exist on a scale of relative sophistication, this renders their ideology and technology and thus the people themselves objectively inferior to modern ‘Westerners.’ It is a hop skip and a jump from this set of widespread assumptions to overt ‘Western Supremacy’ and from there to Nazism. Often the more self-consciously ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ someone is, the more they are subject to these assumptions and thus to radicalization. No wonder Reddit, and the internet generally, has been such a fertile recruiting ground for the Alt-Right.

How did we get here? Put simply, this is the end result of a generation that has been deprived of a historical education and humanities education generally. If you are sitting here, you know this. You have heard about history declining as both a undergrad major and as a required part of primary and secondary curricula. You have probably seen this yourself. You may have read the New Yorker’s Eric Alterman as he described ‘The Decline of Historical Thinking’. He talks about the macro-political effects, but at AskHistoriaons, we see the effects on individual people. Thinking historically is about understanding things in their context (and also having a humility about the limitations of our sources and thus our knowledge). Without this tool, younger white men fall prey to easy answers that ignore all contexts in favor of mechanistic determinism, because they don't know how to even look at context. Conveniently, this determinism justifies their own position in society.

What is the solution? If the cause is the decline of historical thinking, then re-introducing historical thinking to people has to be the solution. And not to toot our own horn, but that is what we do at AskHistorians and what we have been doing for the past 8 years. Our very question and answer format allows us to take even the most problematically premised question and use it to illustrate the historical method - source criticism, understanding events in their context, and showing the full complexity of causality. The best of our answers, like the best of all public history education, don’t just convey facts, they show their work and lay bear the method that lets us learn these things. By introducing people to this method, we can force them to see things and people and events in their context, breaking down the decontextualization that deprives them of their true meaning. Moreover, we can show in our answers the full humanity of those who lived in other times and places and thus fight against the dehumanization inherent in seeing history as a determinisitc march of technological and intellectual progress. We can take a deeply problematic question and use it to illustrate the flaws in its very premises and show just how rich and complex the world really is. As moderators and contributors, we don’t just ban Nazis. We hope to show confused young men the beauty and complexity of humanity and our history in all its fullness, before the Nazis get their hands on them.

Now, this is more than a pitch for you to join us - though if you want to, we have business cards, and we’re always happy to host historians as podcast guests and AMA victims...I mean subjects. No, this is also a call for historians to go where the confused young men of the internet are and to engage them directly before they are lost down the rabbit hole of the internet’s most toxic ideologies. Also reach out to young women and queer people and people of color who long to hear their history and who have never been told by an academic historian just how much of a history they have. Go onto YouTube and show what real history looks like. Start a podcast to compete with the Dan Carlins of the world. Go on Tumblr and find young people who are thirsty for queer history and don’t know where to find it except from the most simplistic and misleading sources. Seek out history buffs and fans and curious people and show them on Facebook and every other internet cesspit what doing history looks like. Because they may be cesspits, but as we have learned, the internet is no longer just the internet - it is real life. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. Thank you.

 

"Indigenizing the Public, Indigenizing the Academy: Challenges in/from the Digital Sphere", presented by Kyle Pittman of George Mason University

With a monthly average of nearly 2 million readers, AskHistorians, indeed social media in general, is a prime location to undermine hegemonic historical narratives at their base in public discourse.

But at a time when the humanities often seem to be fighting for their survival, the introduction of subaltern perspectives and historical methodologies poses an extra challenge for Indigenous and other scholars. Despite the ongoing decolonization and Indigenization of the academy, our panel of nearly 400 subject-matter experts and general readership frequently, and unintentionally, slips into tacit West-centric perspectives when answering and asking questions. The lightning speed of Internet discourse and the perceived need to keep followers comfortable enough to continue reading ends up privileging the dehumanization of people in oppressed groups and the resignation of “Native Americans” to a bucolic pre-colonization era. The perpetuation of this perspective, despite the best intentions of its unwitting perpetuators, both distorts history and has very real material costs for Indigenous Peoples today.

Why AskHistorians

It is important to understand the value of AskHistorians and why, despite the challenges, this platform is necessary for the advocation of Indigenous rights, issues, and scholarship. AskHistorians provides a unique and generally inclusive platform to host perspectives of the subaltern that would be hard-pressed to find another space with as much reach and structure as provided by AskHistorians. The moderation team of AskHistorians has worked diligently over the years to ensure that Indigenous Voices, presented either through the echoing of ally voices or by Indigenous Peoples themselves, are accounted for to the best of our ability. Yet, as is common in other spaces, Indigenous persons are few and far between, particularly among our flaired experts. And similarly to academia, Indigenous experts are highly outnumbered by non-Native colleagues. There are at least eight flaired experts on AskHistorians who specifically identify their studies as being about American Indians or related to studies involving the Indigenous Peoples of North America and over ten other contributors whose studies overlap with areas of American Indian Studies. Out of these, approximately three identify as Indigenous. Therefore, the moderation team has sought different avenues to promote Indigenous Voices and content within our community.

Answers about Indigenous Peoples

While the number of Indigenous flaired users is low, there is no shortage of answers to questions regarding Indigenous Peoples. Through the application and peer review process for flaired users, in addition to the standards of the community as enshrined in the rules, AskHistorians has reserved a space that allows for accurate information about Indigenous Peoples to be provided by qualified community members in a way that is largely absent from the rest of the website and indeed many other spaces of the Internet. Answers often contain corrections to erroneous premises and expose underlying ideologies that accompany the framing of inquiries submitted to the subreddit. To highlight these kinds of contributions, many of them have been recorded in the Frequently Asked Questions section of the subreddit wiki.

Moderation Efforts

The moderation team of AskHistorians, in attempts to preserve the integrity of history as a discipline being practiced in an online public space and advance the public mission of our community, commits itself to actively promoting Indigenous Voices and casting light onto colonial shadows ever present among society and within the narratives ever prevalent among the community. We have made a number of efforts to not only defeat colonialist tendencies, but minimize their proliferation. One example of this is our stance toward genocide denialism. While the presence of neo-Nazi elements residing among online spaces might no longer be surprising in the digital age, Indigenous Peoples continue to resist in a more public fashion the continued beratement and objectification of our cultures, communities, and histories. Genocide denialism, as we at AskHistorians recognize it, is not a tactic reserved in application for the Holocaust. It is utilized by political agitators, serious academics, and the lay amateur alike as it has been normalized by the dominance of colonizing powers. Hence, moderation efforts include executing penalties against malicious users seeking to further the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples and deploying a detailed boilerplate response, known as a “macro” reply, to problematic inquiries that question the validity of the American Indian genocides, which includes responses to common methods of denialism and credible works that assert this truth.

Monday Methods

Since February 2017, AskHistorians has published installments of our bi-weekly Monday Methods series, a feature post that explores historical methods, historiography, and theoretical frameworks concerning history, that present Indigenous perspectives and paradigms.

These installments of a featured series present the opportunity for Indigenous worldviews to reach a wide audience that is otherwise ignorant of genuine non-Western interpretations of historical events and methods to understand the study of history. These types of posts usually consist of mini-essays or brief talking points to encourage discussion in the comments of the post. Once submitted to the subreddit, it is pinned, to the top of the front page to promote its visibility. Among the topics covered by the Indigenous-specific installments are:

 

  • An Indigenous approach to understanding history;

  • “Indigenizing” a literature review;

  • An Indigenous view of technology, science, and history;

  • Ethical research engagements with Tribes;

And how to understand and reconcile contradictions among Indigenous sources.

As this series has historically been provided as an effort by the moderation team, Indigenous-specific installments are typically authored by myself as the only identifying Indigenous member of the moderators, though there have been several installments provided by non-Native flaired experts and a number of instances where the topic would naturally allow for Indigenous perspectives for discussion.Problematic Audience BehaviorWhile AskHistorians as a space and platform proves to be supportive of Indigenous perspectives in a discipline highly steeped in Western culture, the audience is not always so amicable to perceived incursions of the proverbial “Other.” The curated content of the community has created a regular audience that will generally be welcoming toward different understandings and non-standard narratives in the sense that there is a level of awareness regarding the nature of the forum that is AskHistorians—that being a learning environment. However, with a subscriber base of over one million users and the potential for popular questions to reach the “front page” of the entire website, many questions stand poised to attract non-regular users who take up positions as contrarians at best, bigots at worst. As such, it is not uncommon for posts featuring Indigenous-related content to be provocatively critiqued, unabashedly questioned, and rigorously worked compared to content more in line with Western standards. In the same vein, it is not uncommon for subaltern content to be bombarded by racist commentary, outright dismissal of Indigenous claims, and assertion of Western/White dominance.

Example 1. In a thread for an Indigenous Monday Methods post entitled “Is research value-neutral?” a flaired user made a comment taking a Western oppositional approach to the information presented. The post itself questioned the viability of the concept of objectivity in research and how this concept is interpreted by many Indigenous Peoples. The user in question was moved to interrogate this position by contrasting the Indigenous position with the very Western position it was unsettling. Excerpts from their comment included

“However I think there are consequences to this that need to be wrestled with. Would you really assert that Native American medicine is as good at describing actual reality as, say, Western medicine? … Or to be especially provocative: if you replace ‘Native science’ with ‘Young Earth Creationism,’ does your stance change?”

Though the comment itself was not ill-willed, this line of questioning stood in clear opposition to the viewpoint being presented as it deviated from the normal framework of criticism that objectivity endures under a Western lens. This takes place by the reframing of an Indigenous position into a Judeo-Christian reality that is common in Western cultures and is often interpreted as starkly inaccurate to conclusions derived by scientific research. The discussion is no longer about Indigenous views on objectivity, but about verifying the validity of Indigenous philosophy as a means for meaningful engagement, working to ultimately dismiss the presented Indigenous Voice by utilizing the dominance of Western thought prevalent on the subreddit.

Example 2. During a panel “Ask Me Anything” thread entitled “500 Years Later – Colonization of the Americas Panel AMA,” members of the audience directed culturally insensitive remarks toward the subject of the post and members of the panel, including myself.

One user asked a question regarding how they should treat land containing a burial mound that is on private property. After several flaired experts responded to the question about ethical ways to approach their situation, one user questioned “why” it would matter to disturb graves, indicating that because “they died,” considering the people they once were is unimportant and “all that remains is useful historical information we can use to better humanity through knowledge of our shared history.” A lengthy discussion then ensued about the supposed necessary passage of time before one could, as I perceived, begin grave robbing.

This example not only demonstrates the conflict that occurs between Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences when it comes to cultural customs, but also the conflict between the philosophical basis that informs said customs. Whereas Indigenous scholars “see their work as service to their people and to Indigenous peoples generally,” which necessitates commentary on immediate concerns to our communities, many Western scholars, and thus Western audiences, often see their work in individualistic terms, directly relevant to their own status and serving to deny pluralistic context that gives equity to the parties involved. In the example provided here, users prioritize a meaningless rationale of advancing humankind to overstep an oppressed group that has long been subjected to imperialistic research.

Example 3. In another Indigenous installment of Monday Methods entitled “American Indian Genocide Denial and how to combat it,” users expressed sharp concern for the classification of imperialistic actions of colonizing powers, including the United States, as constituting “genocide.” This thread in particular not only encountered dismissal of an American Indian interpretation of historical colonization, but saw the utilization of existing colonial narratives to drown out the critical reproach of said narratives.

One user inquired, “where do we draw the line between modern genocide and renisance [sic] brutality? To a layman, I have a hard time taking this at face value because it feels revisionist,” a position asserting the prevalence of previous violence justifies the perpetuation of more violence.

Another user admittedly stated, “I’m in denial apparently. My reasonings were not considered in the [original post], so I’d like to share.” Stated reasons for their apparent denial include justifying colonialist actions because “at certain times various tribes were at war with America;” proffering that because “Native Americans did not share the same values as white Americans,” the trumped up fear of Natives held by settlers was enough reasoning for colonial governments to act on “the removal/destruction of native tribes;” and arguing that because “certain tribes were universally hated by whites and other natives,” we should question their inclusion among “victims of white persecution.”

A third user explained:

“I agree with the notion that there are some people who try to claim that the death count was lower than it really was, but there are also people who try to claim that the death count was higher than it really was. The comparison to Holocaust denial seems inappropriate given that we don’t have good numbers on how many Native Americans lived in the Americas prior to colonization … You claim that the actions of settlers made deaths due to disease worse. But how much worse? I’m inclined to think that the vast majority of deaths due to disease were unavoidable … To frame any attempt at moderating more extreme historical claims as “denialism” seems very biased and concerning to me.”

This explanation by the user first asserts that a numerical value of deaths is required to classify the atrocities that happened on this soil as genocide. Genocide is a systemic process in which there are typically a series of events contributing to overarching goals that can ultimately result in numerous deaths, but it does not require a quota to be reached before it is actualized. Using a quantification barrier like this is a common tactic of denial, as evident by its continued use of Nazi apologists who work to incrementally decrease the “death count” of Holocaust victims. Yet, this position is common among Reddit users, for verifiable quantities and measurable outcomes are the norms among a society that prioritizes notions of objectivity to establish ontological and epistemological truths.

 

Problematic Nature of Questions

While the comments made by the general audience of Reddit and those who visit AskHistorians can be troublesome on their own, the other primary component that characterizes the forum—the asking of questions—also presents a number of challenges for the inclusion of the subaltern. Because questions are manually approved by the moderators as they are submitted, many are filtered out due to violating our rules and therefore never make it to the front page for the subscriber base to see. However, due to the approach we take with history and our advocacy for involving the public, we do not always remove erroneous or faulty questions. This includes questions with poor premises, misguided conclusions, and inaccurate rationale. It can also include questions that suggest colonialist talking points and presumptions of truth to them.

Example 1. As a rather more innocuous example, a question was submitted that asked: Native Americans in what is now the USA have often been portrayed as having "idyllic" lives before Western colonizers arrived - is there any truth to this? How much "easier" were their daily lives? Before Western diseases and colonists arrived, was it a life of easy hunting and simple living?

The problem here does not necessarily lie within the question itself, but what the question is about. It is centering and questioning the “Noble Savage” myth, as identified by myself and other contributors in the thread. While the question provides an opportunity to dispel notions of the Noble Savage, it also incites racist remarks and poor attempts to rectify the myth with further stereotypes and tropes.

Removed comments from the thread include:

 

  • “It was never easy. This should be obvious. Have you ever lived in a teepee or a [expletive] cave? It sucks.”

  • “Almost always, a civilization successfully invading another is possible because the invaders are technologically superior. It definitely does improve the quality of life for the invaded.”

  • “Well, they’re called savages for a reason.”

  • “Yes way easier less DIABETES [sic]”

  • “They didn’t have the wheel.”

 

Example 2. Another user inquired, “Is it true the Natives were oppressing eachother [sic] before Columbus arrived in the America’s [sic]?” As it would be later explained in the thread, the premise of this question is both flawed and typical of many questions about Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples overall submitted to AskHistorians. It is built on a colonialist narrative that seeks to justify oppression and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples and our lands by citing existing conflicts among ourselves as reasonable grounds for our removal. The core goals of colonialism are territorial expansion, resource extraction, and subjugation of the Indigenous population. Thus, it serves the interest of colonial powers to frame Indigenous inhabitants as deserving of mistreatment.

AskHistorians on the Frontline

As is evident, the challenges facing AskHistorians as a community and Indigenous members of this community are daunting. However, as described at the outset, AskHistorians has committed itself to supporting the subaltern and providing a platform for which we may speak and have our voices heard. As Reddit continues to grow and become more cemented among social media platforms while allowing space for discussion, it will prove to be one of the many battlegrounds where colonialist narratives attempt to proliferate and distort the history we are responsible for safeguarding and retelling. The public mission of AskHistorians ensures that we as the moderators on these frontlines are to expose the ideologues and political operatives seeking to co-opt the spaces that attract audiences desiring the content we help to provide.

For Indigenous Peoples, the challenges associated with AskHistorians do not compare to the opportunities afforded to us by having a place among the audience, flaired users, and moderation team to write and speak freely about our experiences, our cultures, and our histories. It is my feeling that as long as we keep up the fight to Indigenize the academy and Indigenize the public, AskHistorians will be ever present as a symbol of these efforts.

"Digital Labor, Emotional Labor, Academic Labor: Developing a Professional Ethics for Social Media", presented by Dr. Cait Stevenson of the Medieval Studies Research Blog and University of Notre Dame

Did early modern kids playing with toy guns says “Pew pew pew”? What did drunk people eat before hot wings and takeout pizza? Should I ford the river or caulk my wagon and try to float across?

Oh, and does Hildegard of Bingen’s visual allegorization of sins in her Liber vitae meritorum anticipate the thirteenth-century shift from earlier penitentials to the virtues and vice model more applicable to the rising trend towards pastoral care? Or is she developing further the unique moral theology that lies behind her Ordo virtutum?

…One of these is not like the other. And right now, only one of these gets you any credit on an academic CV.

“Public outreach is more important than ever,” we’ve started saying in academia. “Public outreach is necessary.” Now, obviously that means a lot of things. For those of us who are academics, it means one thing above all: work.

That’s right. Public outreach is work. It can be fun, and for some of us it is a vocation in the deepest sense of the word, but it’s also work. We need to recognize that. We need to accept it. We need to deal with it.

We need to be AskHistorians at its most fundamental, important, and countercultural: we need rules. We cannot put our heads down, do the work, and share memes about how miserable we are. Right now, that attitude towards public outreach is making this labor an obligatory line on the CV of underpaid and overworked grad students, early career researchers, and adjunct faculty—more labor with no extra compensation for it, no way to judge quality, and little comprehension of the time and effort involved on the part of hiring committees.

“Public outreach” will become professional exploitation—unless we stop it. We stand consciously at the beginning of an era, which means we have the chance to set our own terms if we act.

I’m here to talk about how eight years of AskHistorians can help us understand public outreach as work, and develop a professional ethics for it which benefits historians and history.

First: public outreach is intellectual labor.

Public outreach is work in and of itself. It is not merely a repetition or repackaging of our research, or rattling off facts from a timeline.

I wrote about Hildegard of Bingen and the Liber vite meritorum my second year of grad school. I wrote “pew pew pew” my second year on AskHistorians. What we do as academics is overwhelmingly not what the public is interested in—what non-academic readers are going to actually click on. On AskHistorians, most of our popular questions fall into a few categories:

 

  • What was it like to live in the past?

  • Did people do this in the past?

  • Where did this modern thing come from?

  • Is this movie accurate?

  • What did Hitler think about this?

  • How did Hitler react to that?

 

These are questions whose answers are grounded in existing historical scholarship. But they require original research and analysis, not just repetition and synthesis. Most of the time, we can put together answers drawing from multiple secondary sources—building on earlier scholarship. Sometimes, it means we have to do flash-fly primary source research, because the topic is that far removed from anything “acceptable” by an academic journal. These questions represent genuine public interest. This is where we start. But as historians, not just people writing about the past, we cannot end there.

So I suggest a personal metric we all know and love: colon cancer. If your topic is genuinely the first, snappy part of your book title, probability leans towards public outreach. If your topic is the actual description of your book that follows the colon, it’s probably academic.

“Let’s Make a Saint (colon): Writing the Contested Sanctity of Magdalena Beutler.” There you go.

We have to think about what people outside academia want to hear about. Then we have to figure out how to use “why did certain people become saints if everyone in the Middle Ages was religious?” to talk about sexism in medieval sources and in modern interpretation of them, and how to judge between competing narratives.

Public outreach must be publicly accessible and publicly interesting, but also public history.

 

Second: Public outreach is emotional labor.

Reviewer #2.

Even if you’ve never submitted a journal article, you know Reviewer #2. And you know that opening the feedback email or page to see the constructive comment from Reviewer #1 followed by the utter utter bullshit from Reviewer #2 who clearly did not read your article and just as clearly read your article but is jealous of your superior skills is Arlie Hothschild’s foundational definition of emotional labor: when an employee must manage their emotions and present a façade in trying circumstances in order to protect the feelings of customers.

As scholars, we’re not immune from hurtful feedback from people we can’t offend, in the moment or years down the road when we still remember that our writing is more appropriate for a TV miniseries than a tenth-grade term paper. This emotional labor is already part of our paid or unpaid jobs. Public outreach on the Internet adds an entire next level of emotional labor that is also part of the work.

On AskHistorians, we mods do our best to shield our users. Civility is our #1 rule, and prohibition of any form of bigotry is #2. But the moderators see what our community doesn’t. You’ll see it on your blog. You’ll see it in your tweets. You’ll go back to the Wikipedia page a week later to find someone reverted all your edits back to what is factually, demonstrably wrong. With Reviewer #2, you get the email. Online, it keeps coming and coming. And it hurts.

With AskHistorians, our primary way of dealing with this is social support. We have a forum for flairs. The chat app we use as mods to coordinate AskHistorians and to discuss the accuracy or sufficiency of borderline answers is equally or more important to help us deal with those “deleted” comments and bigoted questions that are not “deleted” for us.

One of the most important things about this is that we are comfortable expressing this frustration and resignation and anger to each other. You know what? I was not comfortable expressing it with my grad cohort. I am not comfortable expressing it with my professional colleagues who are in academia. We need to fight the idea of a stigma on public outreach—of public outreach work as somehow “less than.” This means, above all, claiming the work that we do, both in conversations and on our CVs.

Third: Public outreach is gendered labor.

A professional ethics for public outreach must account for structural discrimation as well as the individual acts of active bigotry. To be clear, I’m not making light of sexism within academia, or of other types of discrimination. However, the heavily textual nature of the Internet combined with English’s ongoing insistence on gendered pronouns means that issues of female, male, and nonbinary gender can never hide.

The environment for public outreach online is actively hostile to women. AskHistorians is a perfect and shameful crystallization of this. Being hosted on reddit gives us an enormous boost in audience. It’s a choice we make in order to reach such a large audience.

But as a massive forum that serves as a microcosm of the Internet, reddit is the online homestead of “incels,” or “involuntary celibates,” and “braincels,” the intellectual side of the involuntarily celibate community who still hasn’t figured out their name reads as Bra Incels. This means that we get questions, wrong answers, and comment replies from people who consider themselves incels. Those comments might be sexist, or they might not. But we know with every answer we right, the potential to hear slurs, insults, catcalls, and rape threats is always a possibility.

The environment for public outreach online is also passively hostile to women.

One of my favorite reddit stories: I wrote a fun answer that got some attention from a different, much larger “best of” subreddit. One of the first commenters there was an AskHistorians reader who referred to me as “she.” A reply challenged this assertion. At which point, multiple strangers on the Internet proceeded to debate whether I’m female or male.

I thought this was hilarious. But for some historians, following that thread could have required enormous amounts of emotional labor. What if I were a trans woman, and every time I saw “he” gave me waves of nausea and fear? What if I were battling PTSD from being raped, and suddenly the type of people that AskHistorians bans are explicitly thinking of me as a woman?

But even my laughter has a darker side. The story is also a reminder that the Internet’s default assumption that people are male harms the ability of women scholars, when recognized as women, to be taken seriously. “A woman didn’t write that—you didn’t write that.”

Internet audiences accept the authority of men with less basis than they require of women. Women must do more intellectual labor in order to have the same degree of successful public outreach.

In addition to women scholars and nonbinary people dealing with passive and active sexism, many women are also trapped in a catch-22 that…just really sucks.

The content of historical information online is vastly imbalanced towards male historical figures and stereotypically male historical interests. We absolutely, 100%, necessarily must work to correct this. Indeed, the academic organizations leading the effort to reform Wikipedia include, if I might brag about my era for a moment, the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship. We recognize that the tasks that most need doing concern women in the ancient world, people of color in the Middle Ages, people with disabilities having a seizure in their hotel room the night before they give their papers so I really hope I’m making sense.

The problem is, it remains the cases that it’s mainly women who are interested in women historical figures. It’s mainly women who write about women historical figures. So when we stress the need to get information about women online, like it or not, purposefully or not, we place an extra burden on women. Extra time, extra work, extra intellectual and emotional labor.

A professional ethics of public outreach must account for the extra difficulties faced by women and the extra need for writing about women’s history in a public environment. Women focusing on all topics and women’s history scholars of all genders must receive more credit.

And the extra work done by women scholars and the need for extra credit brings me to my final point: for people in academia, public outreach is not digital labor.

Maria Mies defines digital labor as the creation of original content and information for a mass audience, usually but not always online, that is done because the creator wants to, and serves as its own reward. But for every academic organization like the Medieval Academy of America that awesomely establishes a committee on Wikipedia, for every school like the University of Reading that awesomely hires a professors’ social media coordinator, it becomes more and more explicit that “public outreach is necessary” has become part of the job.

So here’s the heart of this. You want a professional ethics for public outreach? Value it according to the only metric that matters: will it get you a job.

 
 
 
 

We say “Public outreach is more important than ever” “public outreach is necessary.” That’s why I’m on this panel and why you’re in this room. The roles of a historian in academia: research, teaching, service—and now, public outreach. It’s not the equivalent of a line on your CV. It’s the equivalent of a section.

Job applicants should be required to demonstrate any public outreach involvement, and hiring committees should be required to recognize the significance of these projects.

Like sections on research and teaching, the public outreach section should include a list of projects on the CV itself, sample blog posts or Twitter threads, and a personal statement outlining our strategies for making public outreach successful.

If public outreach is a value, we need to make it have value. In the context of twenty-first academia, that means public outreach labor must help people get into PhD programs, win fellowships, get full-time jobs, and earn promotions.

This shouldn’t sound revolutionary or utopian. Public historical outreach is intellectual labor, it is emotional labor, it is academic labor. Why shouldn’t we get credit for the work we do?

As academics, we are conscious that right NOW is the start of an era where the maturation of social media meets the fresh weaponization of inaccurate history for malignant ends. We are conscious of the need to fight this through historical public outreach. We are conscious of the need to fight this NOW. Our awareness gives us the chance to develop guidelines that can limit the exploitation of scholars today and tomorrow.

So I propose a professional ethics for public outreach. It emphasizes reaching a non-academic audience, not pretending we are. Our efforts meet people in the way they think and wonder about the past, not through the questions we’re trained to ask. If we see a need to push a particular subject, we offer incentives for providing content in that subject. And we recognize public outreach as academic labor that counts towards getting a job—not as a checkmark on the CV, but for its amount, quality, and success.

We have the chance to get this right. But we have to act together, and we have to act now.Thank you.

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