When History Goes Bad: On the Dangers of Going Viral

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It seemed like a good idea at the time…

If you spend enough time on social media, you start to get a sense of what is going to be popular. Take something sensational that pushes people’s buttons and confirms their deepest pre-existing beliefs. Give them some ammo for their self-righteousness. Or just put up a cute animal. Or all of the above.

I try my best to avoid doing this. I work on the history of East Germany and post historical facts and photos daily, often on material that can be very emotionally charged. When it comes to historical posts, I do my best to hold back on editorializing or adding inflammatory commentary.

Then came last Friday. I was on the road going to a conference still up in the middle of the night and saw the Daily Mail’s now infamous “Enemies of the People” headline denouncing the High Court for their decision on how Brexit will proceed.

I found this to be objectionable and not just a little bit proto-fascist. Normally I avoid making comparisons with Nazi history, but it immediately brought to mind the famous cover of the Illustrierter Beobachter with the header “Volksverräter” or “traitors of the people” listing those whose citizenship was being stripped in 1933. Not the same thing, just eerily reminiscent.

Shortly after midnight, after a quick google image search for a scan of the newspaper I decided to post the two images side-by-side just stating what they were and calling on readers to compare and contrast. I wasn’t prepared to go so far as to say the Daily Mail were actually fascist, but I wanted to point out where this sort of extreme thinking can lead to. I hadn’t really thought it through too carefully, more just a middle of the night reaction to something troubling in the news.

Almost immediately the post was being re-tweeted by dozens of people and far in excess of the usual enthusiasm for my normal posts of East German football matches or Berlin Wall shooting victims. I stayed up to argue with some people for a while (again, something I try not to do)  and then decided to shut off for the night.

By the next morning, the tweet has been seen by around 50,000 people. On a good day, my posts on East Germany have about 15,000 views so this was off the charts and it just kept going. By the end of the day, it had been retweeted more than 1,000 times with over 100,000 views. Hurrah, I’ve gone viral – I thought, while feeling somewhat grubby about my most sensationalist tweet being the one to gain the most attention.

Then it started to go south. I saw the same image posted on another timeline, but with some added commentary:

Problem 1: The German text does not actually say “Enemies of the People.”

Problem 2: The rest of the text is way off from the original German

Problem 3: None of those who had their citizenship taken away were judges.

This had taken my albeit inflammatory comparison, and flat out lied about the contents to make it as sensationalistic as possible. My post had become another inaccurate history meme. The kind I normally saw and shook my head at thinking “that’s not bloody true, you twit!” Not only that, it was vastly more viral than my post, at last count by a factor of 16. I had unleashed a monster.

I tried pushing back when I saw it was being tweeted, hoping to correct the record, as did many others who had seen the original post. But to no avail. The person who posted the modified version did not respond to me and by then it had been picked up by thousands of others.

Having birthed the meme, it had progressed to the bullshit phase of its life cycle in only 24 hours and thankfully by this morning, it matured to the debunking phase. While my pushback had done nothing to stop the meme, Christian Odendahl of the Centre for European Reform, stepped up with a comprehensive explanation of all that was wrong with the modified version of my tweet.

It hasn’t killed off the meme entirely, but he did the leg-work of laying out everything wrong with it in a comprehensive and nuanced fashion. It even became a Twitter Moment:

I’ve learned two things from this experience:

First, never tweet about Nazis after midnight. Just don’t do it.

Second, when it comes to social media memes, to paraphrase Gresham’s Law , bad history drives out the good.

In this day and age we are more likely to drown in bad information than to die from thirst for knowledge. Popularizing academic research is a vital part of our work, but the emphasis on public impact alongside the rise of social media provides the temptation to shortcut the difficult work of translating complex ideas into mass market formats.

Social media has allowed me to connect with a large audience of people who have a genuine interest in a nuanced examination of a specific historical era. When I make mistakes, there are plenty of keen eyed followers who can catch me out and I do my best to be accurate and informative. These are not qualities that make you go viral. They are, unfortunately, usually its antithesis. By tossing out something so provocative onto the web, without the necessary context and nuance, I inadvertently contributed to the mass of bad information that is out there. And that is far more frustrating than any amount of twitter views is worth.

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6 thoughts on “When History Goes Bad: On the Dangers of Going Viral

  1. Haydn

    Lol. I shared that inaccurate post earlier on my FB… I did write a caveat that as I can’t read German I can’t confirm accuracy. The gist of the meme is what counts here, and the comparison with Nazi Germany is a fair one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is part of my frustration – the example didn’t need exaggerating. By falsifying the translation and content, it turned the conversation into one about the accuracy of the meme rather than the troubling parallels.

      Like

  2. Shaun

    Wouldn’t it have been rather simple to have translated the content yourself in the original post? After all, how can people compare and contrast when most do not know German?

    Like

    1. In retrospect yes. I added in a translation of the headline and the list of those condemned in replies, but by then it was too late. If I had actually thought it would be so popular I would have been far more careful. Hence, no tweeting on Nazis after midnight.

      Like

  3. Ben Odams

    I like your honesty – i retweeted the original tweet, but my partner via a different route found the other one. i suppose that the lesson is that all side use history for their own purposes – your original intent was good and that wasn’t diminished by what came next. If anything it reflects a passion for historical references at a time when people feel we are in unchartered territory – the reality is that we have always been we just hadn’t noticed until now…

    Like

  4. Pingback: 5 Lessons from Twittering While Academic – Superfluous Answers to Necessary Questions

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