The case for historical literacy

In an age of misinformation, media literacy and historical literacy are increasingly intertwined.

A Civil War-era photograph captioned as the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. The image is actually of a studio photograph of Union troops taken in Philadelphia, probably in early 1864.

Media Literacy Week begins in the U.S. today, an appropriate time to revisit a piece on media literacy and historical literacy that I published a few years ago.

On the morning of September 1, 2017, a Twitter user tweeted that tearing down Confederate monuments dishonored Black soldiers who fought for the South. Accompanying the tweet was a photograph alleged to show the Black Confederate soldiers of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, 1861.

The image was tweeted to suggest that since Black soldiers fought for the Confederacy, (1) African Americans supported the South, (2) slavery must not have been so bad if the enslaved fought to defend their masters, and (3) current popular consensus was attempting to bury an event from the past or, perhaps, did not know about it. The tweeted image was not new: it had been circulating online for many years on a variety of websites. At one point it was sold by the pro-Confederacy online retailer, advertised as “Members of the first all Black Confederate Unit organized in New Orleans in 1861.” Historian Kevin Levin brought the image to my attention.

The image and corresponding tweet underscored why we need historical and media literacy in an age of misinformation—and why the two are so interconnected. So much of the historical information we interact with is delivered via online media: podcasts, apps, Wikipedia, Twitter, blogs, memes, videos, and viral accounts such as @HistoryInPics. We need historical literacy and media literacy to decipher good history from bad as it’s transmitted every day in numerous formats.

Historical literacy helps us to probe the image of Black Confederates and ask historical questions. Who were these men? Where was the photograph taken? What uniforms are they wearing? Should we accept the image at face value?

The uniforms are a good starting point. They are, in fact, Union uniforms. If you look closely and enlarge the image, you can almost make out the letters “U.S.” on the belt buckle of a soldier.

The caption also compels us to ask questions. Was there a 1st Louisiana Native Guard? Some research tells us that, in fact, there was. It consisted of Afro-Creoles and was formed of about 1,500 men in April 1861; it was formally accepted as part of the Louisiana militia in May 1862. Research also tells us that these units lacked proper uniforms and equipment, and were used largely as propaganda. “Free blacks fighting for Southern rights made good copy for the newspaper,” writes James G. Hollandsworth. The unit ditched the Confederacy for the Union lines in 1862. It then fought against the Confederacy in 1863–185.

So, who is in this photo? Thanks to the work of scholars Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite, Jr., we know that these are Union soldiers. The photo was almost certainly taken in 1864 in Philadelphia. The original image features a white commanding officer and the “U.S.” in the belt buckles is clearly visible. It appeared in the magazine The Embattled Confederacy in 1982, and sometime between then and the early 2000s, the white officer was cropped out, the background was changed, and Louisiana Native Guard was added in the MS Word typeface “Algerian.” The image posted on Twitter is a falsification. It means something, but not what the Twitter user intended.

Photographs have been manipulated since their invention, and today it is as easy to fabricate an image of a shark swimming through the streets of a hurricane as it is to falsify an image from the past. Millions of historic photographs now appear online in memes, tweets, or articles that serve various political and ideological purposes. This is why we need to complement media literacy with historical literacy. Who or what does an image purport to show? What is the context of the image? What argument is the photograph attempting to bolster, and is there historical evidence for that argument? What is the position of the person citing the image? What sources exist to learn more?

These questions can be equally applied to articles and text on the Web that deal with historical topics. Many news and information websites have “History” sections — some authored by historians, others by journalists, history enthusiasts, political ideologues, or even opportunistic teenagers. The creators of the popular Twitter account @HistoryinPics, mentioned earlier, were 17 and 19 years old when they launched the account. On the basis of their popular Twitter handle, they raised $2 million to create All Day, an online media portal for the “Twitter generation.” When it went live in 2014, the site featured a “History” section. The historical information on All Day was not written by historians, did not cite historians or historical evidence, and was largely copied from Wikipedia — sometimes paraphrasing, sometimes verbatim. Today, the entire site no longer exists; but hundreds of similar sites appear and disappear every week. Historical and media literacy help us to decipher which of these to regard as authoritative and which to approach with skepticism.

With historical information everywhere on the Web, the task of discerning “good” history from “bad” can be daunting. That’s why I created a downloadable resource titled “6 Steps to Historical Literacy.” That resource is below and has also been my pinned tweet on Twitter for the past few years.

These questions are also at the heart of my forthcoming book, History, Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past. Historical misinformation and disinformation is consistently used on the Web to advance agendas and exploit the technologies and algorithms. Recognizing the agendas and understanding the patterns and tactics can make each of us a savvier consumers of information online.

Historical literacy is an important element to add to the media literacy conversation.

Have a good week.

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