In a time when President Trump and his followers are known for spreading dubious versions of American history, historians are taking to Twitter to set the record straight.
It’s easy to be down on Twitter these days. The platform is overrun by bots and trolls. Its most prominent user has been issuing statements like “I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!” But a more optimistic view was on display at a reception that the American Historical Association hosted recently in a conference space at a Sheraton hotel, in Manhattan, as part of its annual gathering. It was a reception for Twitterstorians—historians with Twitter accounts, who have been attracting big followings with their historically informed takes on the dumpster fire that is America in the year 2020. (Bloggers were invited, too.) Attendees snacked on tuna rolls, empanadas, wine, and beer and gossiped about their colleague’s latest tweets. “Did you see Kevin Gannon’s tweet?” someone said, referring to a nineteenth-century American historian with a large Twitter following. “He was sitting next to Cory Booker on the plane ride here!”
Historians do lots of things online. They promote their books, discuss pedagogy, and play nerdy word games. (For example: “FILL IN THE BLANK: A pod of whales. A murder of crows. A __________ of historians.” Replies included “an argument,” a “digression,” and “a contingency.”) A historian named Jason Herbert hosts a ritual called Historians at the Movies, in which Twitterstorians watch a movie and live-tweet it, providing context and commentary. “This past week we watched ‘Malcolm X,’ ” Robin Mitchell, an assistant professor at California State University Channel Islands, said at the Sheraton, where she was sipping wine around a standing table with about five colleagues. “There was a scene where Malcolm X was getting his hair relaxed, and I was, like, ‘Are there any good books about black hair?’ And I immediately got five good book recommendations.” Mitchell, whose Twitter handle is @ParisNoire, created what she calls “the infamous ‘shit happens’ clause,” which her students can invoke to get an extension on an assignment, so they don’t have to lie or come up with a sob story. “I posted about it on Twitter, and I think twenty-two thousand people liked it,” she said. “It’s absurd.”
But Twitterstorians have been preoccupied with more weighty matters in the Trump era, a time when the President and his followers are known for spreading dubious versions of American history. Donald Trump recently wrote, of his impeachment hearings, “More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials,” which is not strictly accurate. Many Twitterstorians have taken it upon themselves to correct the record. The crowd at the Sheraton mentioned the “rock stars” of social media: Kevin Kruse, at Princeton; Joanne Freeman, at Yale; Heather Cox Richardson, at Boston College. They discussed epic Twitter threads. In December, Nikki Haley claimed that the Confederate flag was about “service and sacrifice and heritage” until the mass murderer Dylann Roof “hijacked” it in the name of racial violence. Kevin Levin, a Civil War historian, responded with photographs showing white mobs brandishing the flag during the civil-rights era, and an engraving depicting the Fort Pillow massacre, when Confederates murdered black Union soldiers after they’d surrendered. “Dylann Roof didn’t ‘hijack’ the meaning of the Confederate flag from these men,” he wrote. “He embraced it.”
The bogeyman of Twitterstorians is Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative writer who has become the MAGA crowd’s court historian. His latest book, the best-selling “Death of a Nation,” compares Trump to Abraham Lincoln and attempts to link today’s Democratic Party to the Nazi Party of the nineteen-thirties. Last fall, D’Souza asked his 1.4 million Twitter followers, “If Frederick Douglass were alive today, is there any doubt he’d be a Republican and a Trump supporter?” Kruse tweeted in response, “This might well be the stupidest thing you've ever said here, and that’s saying a lot. Congrats!” The prominent Twitterstorians have all tangled with D’Souza, but Kruse is his best-known adversary. Last February, he began an extensive response to D’Souza’s Democrats-and-Nazis argument with “Fine, let’s do this.”
Aiden Bettine, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iowa, groaned at the mention of D’Souza’s name, and said,“Oh, my god, he’s the worst!”
“What is his thing?” Mitchell said. “Like, ‘The Democrats are racist,’ because he doesn’t understand the way the parties shifted after civil rights?”
Leah LaGrone Ochoa, a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Christian University, noted that Twitter has some advantages as a medium for debate. “What it allows us to do as historians is inject evidence into the universe,” she said. “Screenshots of newspapers from different time periods. Letters that politicians wrote to each other.”
“There it is,” Mitchell said. “It’s all about the primary sources!”
Another historian noted that Kruse’s threads are so popular because “he brings the receipts.”
Ochoa, who is from rural Texas, attempted to bring evidence to an online debate with relatives who supported creating a local Confederate Memorial Day on the grounds that Confederate soldiers were merely defending their “heritage.” She pointed out that slavery was central to the Confederate cause. “I was citing evidence from Karen Cox’s book ‘Dixie’s Daughters,’ about how the Daughters of the Confederacy created this Lost Cause narrative and created school curriculums to teach it to us Southerners,” she said. It didn’t go over well. “I was called a revisionist and a liberal Commie,” she said. But she was glad that she’d put another narrative out there.
“I think it’s a real opportunity for us,” Gannon, who teaches at Grand View University, and whose Twitter handle is @TheTattoedProf, said. “We’re in these public spaces and, to quote Liam Neeson in ‘Taken,’ we have a very particular set of skills.” Gannon, whose burly arms are heavily tattooed, has almost seventy thousand followers and has tangled with D’Souza, too. He has reservations about Twitter as a teaching forum. “It’s not a deliberative space,” he said. “The real struggle for me is it’s very easy to be angry online all the time. But, if all you’re doing is yelling, there’s nothing of substance there.”
David Trowbridge, an associate professor at Marshall University, said, “It’s not us at our best.”
“Well, sometimes it is,” Edward T. O’Donnell, an associate professor at the College of the Holy Cross, said. O’Donnell, whose Twitter handle is @InThePastLane, is the creator of the annual Weemsy Awards, for “the biggest history fails of the year.” He crowdsources the nominations from Twitterstorians. Last year’s winners included President Trump, who said during a Fourth of July speech that George Washington’s army “took over the airports” from the British, and the conservative writer Erick Erickson, who, in criticizing the Times’s 1619 Project, opined about “the cost white people paid to free slaves.”
Gannon argued, “We’re at a particularly dangerous moment, historically speaking,” noting the way that “history, or versions of it, have been weaponized against marginalized communities.” He went on, “When people are reading history and thinking, ‘I wonder what it would be like to live during the Civil War? I certainly would have been one of the good guys,’ well, what you’re doing now is probably what you would have done then.”
“Somebody said that on Twitter a while ago,” O’Donnell said. “It was, like, ‘Remember that time in history class when you were reading about the abolitionist movement and said, ‘I definitely would have stood up’? Well, now is one of those times.”
Trowbridge cleared his throat. “My small viral moment was that one,” he said.
“Oh, that was you?” O’Donnell said. “I instantly retweeted that!”
Trowbridge looked pleased. “I think I went from five followers to five hundred.”
The conversation found its way back to D’Souza, who is not just controversial for his arguments but also because Twitterstorians can’t agree on how to handle him. “Dunking on Dinesh D’Souza—people will say, ‘Why do you do it? You’re giving this guy oxygen,’ ” Gannon said. “And, to an extent, that’s true. But one of the reasons we are where we are in America is because bad-faith actors are throwing this stuff out there, and it goes unchallenged.” He went on, “That dude’s got a million followers. Half of them are probably bots. But it’s a big ol’ platform and a microphone. And if that tweet comes across your crazy uncle’s Facebook feed, and there’s not something underneath it that says, ‘Hey, no, it didn’t happen this way—’ ”
“And here’s why,” O’Donnell added.
“And here’s why,” Gannon said. “Then it’s a problem. Personally, I have nothing to say to Dinesh D’Souza. But, if we are going to continue to be a democratic society, we have to be honest about our history.” He went on, “In medieval times, the term for people like us was ‘remembrancer.’ It wasn’t necessarily someone who was well liked. Because they were the ones who remembered the bad times and warned people, ‘Hey, we’re about to do that again.’ So we’re remembrancers. This is what we do.”