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

AHA Session 122
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Empire Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Peyton Hunter Jones, George Washington University

Session Abstract

The twenty-first century public sphere is no longer television interviews and newspaper editorials. We have had to appropriate the word “curate” to describe winnowing one’s exposure to the world into ideologically compatible soundbites that fit onto a phone screen. With each new revelation about Russian hackers’ manipulation of Facebook and alt-right extremists’ infestation of Twitter and Reddit, it grows ever clearer that social media platforms are the new public—the new battleground for control of public discourse. “Public outreach is more important than ever,” we say, eyeing the weaponization of distorted history and the ongoing devaluation of the humanities. But how do we equip historians with the academic and emotional tools to break through “curated” barriers, engaging a general public that has turned “too long; didn’t read” into a commonplace acronym?

AskHistorians, the Internet’s largest historical public outreach project, has built an audience of 2.5 to 3 million unique visitors each month not despite, but because it provides on-demand historical investigation that is in-depth, comprehensive, and reflects up-to-date scholarship. As its moderators, we have eight years of data regarding successful engagement in social media-based public outreach as professional and alt-ac historians.

This panel uses quantitative data and qualitative experience from AskHistorians to address the challenges and promises of historical public outreach on social media. The panelists raise issues from the effects of race, gender, and class on scholars’ online experiences and ability to participate; to how the culture of Twitter has shaped ways of thinking about history among the public. They offer strategies for dealing with the patterns of abuse, bigotry, and trolling that historians engaged with a broad social media audience can expect to face; and how to make social media outreach a legitimate way of doing history and a career-enhancing opportunity for history scholars. Above all, they tell a story of what it means and what it takes to represent the entire discipline of history to a world falling further and further into technology adulation and ideological tunnel vision.

Together, the papers identify the skills necessary for historical professionals to engage successfully with the general public on social media, and to foster the next generation of historians in classrooms with and without walls.

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