Fact-Checking Our Friends: What is the role of the historian in online discussions?

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From mask wearing and individual rights to Black Lives Matter and police reform, acquaintances, friends, and family have found an infinite supply of topics on which to disagree on social media over the last twelve months. As I write this blog, votes are still being counted in the state of Georgia and protesters have stormed the US Capitol building. The political stakes are high and partisan rhetoric and uncivilized debate have taken over Facebook, Twitter, and other popular online platforms. 


As an historian I’m particularly fascinated by the use of sources. Students in my January intensive course this week are choosing two article-length sources to use as supporting evidence in their short research projects. It is essential that they identify vetted, historically-accurate materials. In my introductory level courses the Works Cited page is submitted as a draft at the project’s start to make sure that students are on the right track with their research. 


And yet … every single day I read something on social media, often written by someone I know, that has origins in a problematic source …


Case in point: a recent Facebook discussion about election fraud. “Friends” of mine were engaged in a spirited debate about accusations of voter fraud throughout history. The friends, all of whom are college-educated professionals, were using Wikipedia articles to substantiate their claims -- sharing, at various points, brief segments copied and pasted from the site as evidence. Sadly, there was not enough time in the day for me to verify whether the Wikipedia articles my friends were citing were factually accurate. It took all of my strength, however, not to interject a comment about their poor choice of sources. 


I do not allow my students to use non-academic sources such as Wikipedia or history.com as references for their history research. I know that some historians do, and that others use studies of the sites as opportunities for students to correct inaccuracies that are posted online. I tell my students that Wikipedia is a great source for information that -- right or wrong -- will not adversely affect the outcome of anything significant; what year did “Mission Impossible II” hit theaters or how tall is Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton? (2000 and 5’7½ respectively)


Nowadays, however, I’m feeling a sense of personal responsibility as a historian to tell people they are citing unreliable sources. I’m trying really hard to not destroy personal relationships by footnoting “friends’” Facebook posts but the situation begs the question: is it impolite to correct friends’ and families’ historically inaccurate opinions online? Where do we as historians draw the line between being right and being polite?

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.