The World Wide Web of Lies: Can historians rely on the Internet?

A study focusing on perceptions of the Internet discovered that respondents considered information found on the Internet to just a credible as information they would receive through newspapers and magazines.[1] With the advent of online archives, and blogs, historical research has entered the World Wide Web. Can historians rely on Internet sources? How can historians safely rely on the Internet in their research?

There have been instances of the Internet being used to spread historical lies. Professor Mills Kelly of the History Department at George Mason University decided to teach a class in 2008 called ‘Lying About The Past’.[2] This course asked students to deceive Internet users by creating the ‘historical’ figure of Edward Owens. The aim was to prove how easy it was to post inaccurate sources online. Professor Kelly announced the scam and warned another one would follow the next semester.[3] Another elaborate scheme followed, with another story about a serial killer. Reddit users quickly responded, and in less than half an hour users started to doubt the sources.[4] Whilst this project may have started in good faith, to highlight the problems of relying on the Internet, did this scheme help or hinder?

There is no doubt that the Internet can be easily manipulated. Users can edit Websites like Wikipedia, and relying on online sources can be problematic. Does that mean we should all turn off our Wi-Fi and run? Absolutely not. A poor workman blames his tools. The Internet can be as useful as you allow it to be. Historians should enter the fray with scepticism, of course, but the Internet can provide reliable sources for research. In order to research online, historians should research the sites they are interested in using. For example, I was recently searching for sources on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When you Google that phrase, the first link that appears is Wikipedia. Checking the sources at the bottom of the Wikipedia page can lead you to more reliable information, but the page itself is useless to academics. However, on the first page of Google’s result we find OurDocuments.gov. At the click of a button you can find out the numerous institutions that the site partners with to enable this online archive. From sponsorship from the History Channel and the National Archives and Records Administration, the site checks out.[5] Websites like Our Documents that provide scans of original documents are safe-havens for historians. There are numerous sites that provide this security. Whether it’s the Old Bailey online archive or the Civil Rights Digital Library, there are numerous online resources that historians can trust.

When logging on, historians should be wary. Wikipedia, Google Images, and Yahoo answers will not provide the credible resources historians are searching for. So continue searching. The Internet is not out to get you. No self-respecting historian starts his or her research on Reddit, or on Wikipedia. Ideally, published articles and books should be the starting point for any research project. However, we should not be so quick to dismiss the Internet. My problem with the ‘Lying About The Past’ project? Professor Kelly only furthers the mistrust between the world of academia and the World Wide Web. Historians are well trained in analysing the usefulness of sources. Applying that skill to surfing the web should protect historians from the parts of the Internet that aim to mislead.

[1] Andrew J. Flanagin and Miriam J. Metzger, ‘Perceptions of Internet Information Credibility’, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, (2000), pp515-540, at p515

[2] ‘The Real Story of Edward Owens’, The Last American Pirate, http://lastamericanpirate.net/; consulted 29 April 2015

[3] ‘How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit’, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/05/how-the-professor-who-fooled-wikipedia-got-caught-by-reddit/257134/; consulted 29 April 2015

[4] Ibid

[5] ‘Organizations’, Our Documents, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/content.php?page=organizations; consulted 29 April 2015

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The World Wide Web of Lies: Can historians rely on the Internet?

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