Is History Being Re-written?

Posted By on September 30, 2011

Further to my article last week about how historical characters are being shrouded in myth and the real facts are being lost, Anne Boleyn Files visitor, Jenny Brown, has just shared a very interesting BBC article with me.

Entitled Is the internet re-writing history?, this article looks at the impact of online propaganda and conspiracy theories on websites and in YouTube videos. In a workshop carried out in a high school in Tower Hamlets, London, pupils were asked to rate various sources of information – their family, the Guardian Newspaper, Twitter, YouTube, the government etc. – according to how much they trusted them, ranking them on a line between “Trust” and “Distrust”. Who can blame these kids for putting the government near to “Distrust”? But they also put YouTube near “Trust”! Oh dear!

The workshop then went on to discuss online videos, asking the pupils what videos they had watched, and every single one of them had seen videos on 9/11 and the death of Osama Bin Laden, spouting conspiracy theories. At another school, pupils discussed what sources they use and trust when looking for information, citing Wikipedia and Google. Although many of them knew that they couldn’t simply take Wikipedia at face value, and should double check the facts, one pupil spoke of how she trusted Google for homework:-

“I just believed the first answer that came up, to be honest. I know I shouldn’t do it, but Google’s like a trusted website; it’s a lot of people’s home page and you just automatically put trust in it.”

The report by thinktank, Demos, entitled “Truth, lies and the internet: A report into young people’s digital fluency”, concludes that young people do not verify the sources of information, do not understand how internet search engines work and were not good at differentiating between propaganda and fact. Demos believe that young people should be taught “digital judgement” as part of the core curriculum and that:-

“teaching young people critical thinking and skepticism online must be at the heart of learning. Censorship of the internet is neither necessary nor desirable; the task instead is to ensure that young people can make careful, skeptical and savvy judgments about the internet content they encounter. This would allow them to better identify outright lies, scams, hoaxes, selective half-truths, and mistakes, and better navigate the murkier waters of argument and opinion.”

The internet is part of our daily lives and is a valuable resource but children need to be taught how to use it. My children often come home from school with a project to do and it seems that their teachers are encouraging them to almost copy and paste from wikipedia, rather than to go to a number of sources and double check the facts. Education really needs to go back to nurturing the questioning nature of children, encouraging them to think for themselves and to challenge what they read don’t you think? See, I’m on my Friday soap box!!

Notes and Sources

13 thoughts on “Is History Being Re-written?”

  1. RxPhan says:

    Wikipedia’s NOT a reliable source at all-it relies a lot on ‘guest contributers’. We (the US) had an incident a couple of months ago where Sarah Palin made some statements about Paul Revere that were historically inaccurate. Some of her fans went into Wikipedia to change what was there to correspond to her statements. Wikipeda had to stop the changes.

    The internet, like any new technology, is a double-edged sword. When new and exciting historical information comes to light (new, undiscovered documensts, new archeological finds, new satellite photos, etc) it is a great and immediate source. When opinion is passed off as fact, it becomes a propaganda tool.

    Some people think that teaching children to “question everything” is dangerous. They think that it leads to rebellion and the collapse of society.

  2. Louise says:

    I wonder if it goes even deeper than rewriting history, which it does, if people take things at face value. If you look at the massive advancements in technology, particularly over the last eighty years or so, it’s incredible. It reflects human ingenuity, imagination and boundless quest for knowledge. It would be really sad, and ironic, if that same technology has the efeect of limiting our ingenuity, imagination and quest for knowledge by making everything too easy. If so, human curiosity and desire for advancement runs the risk of becoming static.
    As you can see I’ve thought far too much about this over a long period of time! I do worry that we seem to be going backwards rather than forwards.

  3. Jenny Brown says:

    Hi Claire,

    On reading the BEEB article this morning, you were the frist person I thought of sending it to especially after your interesting post last week, which, I DID READ, (although didn’t make a comment)..

    I am still not very “au fait” with the internet and am one of those people who will not buy anything through this means. However, I can see the pros and cons of being able to get information although, as with you, I always question sources.

    Sites such as yours are great because they involve interaction between people – questions, comments, etc. And, a good way of seeing things from different perspectives.

    Have a good weekend everyone

    Jenny Brown

  4. Esther Sorkin says:

    I agree with you on what education should be doing … and that kids are encouraged to cut and paste is frightening. However. people accepting as historical fact things told to them, without doing their own research has been a problem for centuries … so I am not sure if the internet is increasing the problem or not.

  5. lisaannejane says:

    I find current events even harder to understand than events that happened a long time ago. It is hard to get a view of the overall picture until enough time has passed. I question everything that I see and hear on the news as well as you tube, although much of you tube is intended as a joke. I would not be surprised if Obama was holding back information on Osama bin Laden nor am I satisfied that assassination was the only answer. Maybe Henry VIII would have no problem with it but I do.

  6. Christine says:

    History is rewritten all the time, that’s what historiography is about. “teaching young people critical thinking and skepticism online must be at the heart of learning” is well said, but why just online? A lot of stuff on the internet is poor because it copies or relies on printed sources, very often on print encyclopedias, the press, or lying governments.

  7. Anyanka says:

    Conservapedia which touts itself as The Trustworthy Encylopedia is even worse.

    on Anne Boleyn

    She was executed by sword rather than the cleaner-cutting axe to indicate the extremity of her crimes, and her head was displayed to the public for three days rather than the normal one

    1. Where do they get this stuff? Oy.

  8. Valerie says:

    That’s a really interesting article! I just started doing an evening class last week on ‘Citizen Journalism’ and one of the questions that came up during the class was who do we trust for news? Do we trust more established sources like the BBC or do we trust wikipedia or someone else? Most people went for the BBC as it’s impartial and monitored to make sure the information they are providing is correct. I think the problem with wikipedia is that anyone can contribute and they might have been told something completely nonsensical and always have accepted it as fact and then that’s passed on to other people who also accept it as fact – that’s how legends arose in the past, and where centuries ago it could have been someone’s grandmother who told them that Anne Boleyn had six fingers (to take a really silly example), now it’s a complete stranger who’s passing the legend on via the medium of technology.

    1. Christine says:

      You are invited to remove nonsensical information from wikipedia, and you are required to cite high quality sources (no Alison Weir!) in articles there. I recently came across an article in Britannica Online in which three dates alone were wrong in the first two paragraphs. They also claimed the person had had an office which he never held, it was his stepfather who had the office. So, why don’t you stop wikipedia bashing (you don’t have to use it after all) and start Britannica bashing for a change.

      1. Christine says:

        I am sorry, I didn’t mean that personally. I mean the recent l trend in comments generally (on other sites as well) and should have commented further down. My apologies.

  9. HollyDolly says:

    I’ll look things up sometimes on Wikipedia or whathave you,but i also check out other sources,either online or mainly in books.Kids don’t seem to think for themselves.They seem to swallow what ever some talking head tells them on tv or in school..
    When Jay leno does his Jay Walking segment on his show, sometimes i just want to slap some of these people when it comes to history,because they are so ignorant.
    And by the way a few of them have been teachers,because he will ask the man or woman on the street what they do for a living.
    Probably learned more about the ancient roman emperors from my dad,than in school.
    He read Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is still a classic.Don’t even recall in highschool the teacher mentioning him.We talked about history at home because my parents read a the time.And both for example lived during the Great Depression and my dad fought in WW2,etc.He has relatives in Germany,they used to write the family here so he could talk about the various things going on in Germany that led to the rise of Hitler,etc.

    There are good teachers out there, but it seems as if most of them are lazy if they accept history or other papers based on articles kids lift from Wikipedia, then they are no better than their students. Just make syou mad.

  10. Anne Barnhill says:

    This is such a timely topic–when I taught college, I taught critical thinking and writing and it was amazing how difficult is was to get students to question anything! If they saw it in print, it made it somehow “sacrosanct” and it was really hard to get past preconceived ideas and to get them to judge what was actually being said. But I really LOVED teaching it because it stirred things up and people really had to defend their arguments. Lively discussions! I think there are very fine source online and some that are not reliable. The good old library used to teach such things…I guess they still do in the digital world, too. By the way, I was a bit disappointed in Wolf Hall’s depiction of Anne B. Just finished reading it–finally!

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