As the “fake news” stories spread throughout social media, I am reminded that at my college we rely on CRAP. In fact, we sometimes demand that our students perform CRAP tests. This CRAP acronym; Currency, Reliability, Authority, Purpose or Point of View, is meant to help our young “scholars in training” assess internet sites.[1] We confront students with a series of questions: Are sites up to date? Can they be counted upon as reliable sources? Are there known authors who are well established in their fields? Is the site attempting to inform or persuade, presenting facts or opinions? Is it credible or is it… crappy?

on-the-internet-no-one-knows-youre-a-dog

Peter Steiner, New Yorker, July 5, 1993

If the zinger at the end of the 2016 presidential election is any indication, we historians need to CRAP on our students a whole lot more. Numbers indicate that fake news sites posted and received, on FaceBook, more hits and clicks than actual mainstream news publications.

But rather than conceive of “Truth” as a casualty of America’s 2016 election, it is likely better to think of “Truth” more as a victim of friendly fire. The now three-decade long “culture war” allowed its warriors (more correctly, voters) to enter into this election already armed with their versions (yes, plural) of the “Truth.” Oddly, the election was not about the truth (no, not at all) but rather our country’s ever-widening divisions.

This is very Nietzschean. In the nineteenth century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche posited that the Western concept of truth was built on a “movable foundation and as it were on running water.” In other words, westerners invent it, and reinvent it, and then again (rinse, lather, repeat). “Truth,” according to Nietzsche, is nothing more than a “mobile army of metaphors… which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically,” and here comes the kicker, “which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory… to be truthful means using the customary metaphors… the obligation to lie according to fixed convention, to lie herd-like in a style obligatory for all…”[2]

Our country’s thirty plus years of cultural wars have turned citizens into warriors, and thanks to Gore and Zuckerburg, the internet has become a battlefield of “Truths” – all of them, every single one. In 2016, voters became that “mobile army,” armed with iPhones, Androids, and “metaphors” firing off “tweets” and “posts” like some kind of D-Day reenactment. Except, who is the enemy?

truthinessThis Thirty Years War of cultural bickering – in addition to pitting Americans against Americans – has produced entrenched imaginings, and on both sides (if there are only two).[3] Differing versions of America appear, each contemptuous of the other, morphing our lands into some strangely bi-polar frontline where “Truthiness” spreads like death at Verdun.[4]

Frustrated (or perhaps surprised) that some of my friends, some very good people, had shared posts from origins somewhat “suspect,” I began to compile a list of these websites back in June of 2016. The trouble was, the number of these sites (plethora) and the illegitimacy of their contents (high) skyrocketed: early and unrestrained. They especially appeared on FaceBook (hearing me, Zuckerberg?), but other social media favorites were bombarded by these missives. Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Tumbler – a cascade of mistruths invaded their realms. They were hard to miss, easy to click, and the clicks usually rewarded the cultural war warrior with an endorphin-filled blast of “hey, this article thinks like I do!”

But I recently learned I was not the only one. An east coast communications professor named Melissa Zimdars crafted an open to all “Google docs” listing of sites she called “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical “News” Sources.” The list is comprehensive and protean. But, even by her own admission, the list itself is difficult. A “False” site (a site that purposely spreads false news) is listed along with “Clickbait-y” sites (sites that promised certain data but supplied you different data when you arrived) and the two can be (and usually are) very different.  Her concerns were toward her freshmen communications class, attempting to instruct students “to be critical of the sources we share and engage with on social media.”

fake-news-chartAs someone who teaches CRAP to my history students, I am thankful for the Zimdars list. Indeed, students must be more critical of their sources when investigating the past, and I’ve been enforcing this ideal for years.

But social media is not a history exercise. Sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others exist not for truth-seeking purposes, but for “social” means, places where we can connect and share. These are intensely public collectives where clicks and likes take little effort, require little energy, and after thirty years of culture wars send meme bombs and GIF grenades alongside our pet cats and latest pasta dish creation.

Don’t get me wrong, the Zimdars list is terrific, and I’ll use it, but the list needs to come up with something else, an instruction set perhaps. But maybe something more, I don’t know.

In all of this soup of misinformation that seemed to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, I am reminded of a couple of things that UCLA Professor Joyce Appleby once wrote. First, that history “requires rigorous attention to the details of the archival records as well as imaginative casting of narrative and interpretation.”[5] Great. That’s for history. And I teach students to question their sources as they craft their stories.

But I think this past election has shown a deeper need.

2016 has proved the blurring of public and private, and the merging of two forces: relentless media-driven messaging on the one hand and the ease and use of social media on the other. History can assist with helping students discern between the two. There’s good news in this: students arrive in our classrooms already armed with quite a bit of media savvy. They are quite aware of the vices inherent in mainstream corporate media. At the same time, though, students use their own forms of social media to broadcast their lives to any and all. They eaves drop on their “friends” who do likewise. In other words, they disconnect and reconnect every day, likely hundreds of times, and in ways I cannot imagine or fathom. This constant shifting between the realms of their “valid” and “invalid,” their sense of what’s important and what’s non-important is actually a plus for teachers of history. A student’s constant assessment of media (consciously or subconsciously) and its usefulness can be seen as empowering, something akin to truth-seeking – but a truth that is entirely defined by them.

Our job, as historians, is to share how empowering History (with a capital “H”) can be, not to us collectively, but to each student personally. Nietzsche showed that truth is malleable. The 2016 election made this painfully obvious. This generation, raised their entire lives in the reality of the Culture Wars, earned this sort of “pragmatic” merit badge, able to define for themselves fact from fiction.

What students don’t know is that History, too, is equally malleable. Students don’t know that History can be defined by them and for them. This is, in fact, what Carl Becker asked his students to do back in 1935, Everyman His Own Historian. We need to demonstrate to students how history is done rather than to keep attempting – like media – to shove the truthiness of the past and present down their collective gullets. History as empowerment utilizes the pragmatism students already possess. History – like they themselves – can be self-defining, that it is them – not me (or anyone else) – that can take History and define it for themselves, to make use of it, and most important, that “History” as defined by them is attainable.

And this is where I wish to bring in the second quote from Professor Appleby, that when “pragmatism endorses the democratic practice of truth-seeking, it accepts the babel of tongues in the day to day practice of knowing, learning, and teaching.”[6]

Truth was not the casualty of America’s 2016 election. Truth was what it has always been – something built upon moving waters. The Zimdars list will help my student in discerning CRAP, no doubt. But the bigger issue emanating from this past election is the reality of our nation’s many divisions. A pragmatic approach to history can help students understand why and where they fit in.


[1] Our college’s library site where CRAP tests are explained: http://libguides.southmountaincc.edu/CRAPtest

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, trans. Walter Kauffman (Viking Press, 1976), 46-7.

[3] “entrenched imaginings” is a take on Benedict Anderson’s seminal work Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1991).

[4] Stephen Colbert’s definition and use of the word “truthiness” fits in here well. See, http://www.cc.com/video-clips/63ite2/the-colbert-report-the-word—truthiness

[5] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (1994), 249.

[6] Appleby, 285.

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