U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Quality Control for Online History

A couple weeks ago, NPR’s On the Media interviewed the historian Nick Turse, author of the recent book Kill Anything That Moves: the Real American War in Vietnam, about the Pentagon’s website commemorating the Vietnam War, which went up, rather quietly, in 2012. It turns out that the site is full of historical misinformation.  For example, the website’s timeline reproduced the Johnson Administration’s story of the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident, much of which has since been proven not to have happened. And it also suggested that President Nixon had been open with the public about Operation MENU, i.e. the secret bombing of Cambodia. It’s worth listening to On the Media’s interview with Turse, as the story of the Pentagon’s Vietnam history site highlights a problem with online history that we may see grow in the future.

Of course, the problem of politically motivated, inaccurate history is not in any sense limited to the internet.  But historians (and other academics) have devised systems of peer-review that allow a careful reader to find books and journals articles that are at least very likely to be largely truthful.  We have not yet adopted any similar system for websites.  And while there are all kinds of reasons why someone might be suspicious of the Pentagon’s version of the Vietnam War, my guess is that the site is being used by schools across the country (indeed, the site’s Commemorative Partners include a number of high schools).

And bad websites are, in a way, worse than bad books, as the web is simply easier for most people to access than history books. And, especially for a generation that lives on its electronic devices, websites can be a more attractive place to get one’s historical information than old-fashioned printed materials.

All of which should not lead us to wring our hands about the dangers to historical knowledge posed by the internet. Rather, it should lead us to think about ways to make it easier for laypeople to determine what might or might not be a good history website.

As far as the Pentagon’s website is concerned, Nick Turse’s public truth-squading might have had a positive effect. A recent visit indicates that at least two of the problems he cites have been at least partially corrected: the Gulf of Tonkin incident timeline entry now says the supposed second attack on the USS Maddox didn’t happen; and the Operation MENU timeline item correctly notes that Nixon kept the bombing of Cambodia secret from the American public. The entry on the My Lai massacre corrects some of the mistakes Turse notes — increasing the death total from the 200 civilians of official accounts at the time to “up to 500” that better matches what we now know. But the Timeline still refers to it as an “incident,” not a “massacre,” and the extremely brief entry can still be read to hold Lt. William Calley solely responsible.

However, few historical websites are this high profile….and fewer still will get NPR stories devoted to them.  Historians, especially the growing number of us who spend much of our professional lives online, ought to devise a more systematic way of vetting historical websites.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is why I’ve always thought historians should add “Wikipedia Contributor” to the “Service to the Profession” part of their CVs. I think correcting obvious factual inaccuracies online is a great way for scholars to engage with the public. We have a stake in good historical scholarship and ought to promote it in any way we can.

    I am less confident about scholars’ potential to evaluate the utility of online historical scholarship for the reading public. As someone who often attempts to buy history books for friends and family as gifts, I can attest to a difficulty in assessing differences between good scholarship and a good read. The best books are both, but, unfortunately, there are relatively few of them.

    It does seem like there is an alternative academic niche somewhere for a trained historian as NPR (or other intellectual, but non scholarly outlet) reviewer and critic.

  2. One nice development, on the front Ben mentions, is that some journals, like JAH, are doing more website reviews now than ever before. So along with the efforts of interested individual historians, such as Nick Turse’s truth-squading, we have mechanisms for catching bad histories. And I agree with Matt that historians shouldn’t fear being Wikipedia editors—so long as our contributions there are respected and given some weight (but there’s no guarantee there, as I’ve had “corrections” rejected).

    And we can of course set up a comprehensive one-stop shopping website where we authorities rate the “truthiness” of certain narratives.

    But I think we should, at the high school and college levels, do a better job of more explicitly teaching (and inculcating) good “historical thinking” skills. One of those skills involves narrative comparison—i.e. that no one narrative, no matter how much effort we singular individuals make at being comprehensive, never covers the whole story. No one narrative is definitive. That’s THE ONE baseline thing we could do in our classrooms to prevent the bad usage of poor histories. – TL

  3. This is an excellent post, but I’m not clear on what exactly Alpers means by vetting. By its nature the web is an open environment that is available to everyone and doesn’t lend itself to policing. This openness has huge benefits but also drawbacks. I do agree with Tim Lacy’s point that we should be teaching critical thinking and the example of a website from the Pentagon that talks about the Vietnam War does seem like a great place to do just that and ask students to think about the conditions of production, readership, etc. Getting students involved in reading, editing and writing Wikipedia entries is another good place to do this kind of work (Adrianne Wadewitz’s recent post about this is excellent: http://www.hastac.org/node/109234). I’m not arguing that vetting is not a good idea, but I would ask who are they vetting it for and what is the goal of the vetting. At the AHA we have recently started working on some guidelines for the evaluation of online historical scholarship. This work is specifically to do with trying to embed digital scholarship in the discipline to give it (and the scholars who produce it) a more established role. The guidelines will be available in draft form later this year.

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