Getting the trolls to accept historical facts – tilting at windmills? Not for historian Theo Müller. With the GeschichtsCheck.de project, he is banking on the power of truth.
Theo Müller’s goal: to give users a tool they can use to distinguish between historical facts and baseless lies.
It was the peak of the so-called refugee crisis about four years ago. We noticed a new caliber of public racism, hate speech, and turbulence in the world of social media. Many writers corroborated their contemptuous argumentations with what were supposedly historical connections. This gave them a dangerous veneer of trustworthiness. One user, for example, substantiated his hostile attitude toward immigration by stating that Germany managed to achieve its Wirtschaftswunder, its economic miracle, in the 1950s without the help of immigrants. This is just one example of the profusion of historical nonsense that arose on the Internet during that time – and that we, as historians, could not simply leave unchallenged. But what were we able to do?
“We” in this instance refers to members of the Open History organization, a network of people working on and with history in many different places. We want to show that historians don’t just sit in archives writing books that no one reads; in fact, they can make a significant contribution to improving the climate for dialog in our society. Thus, it was with great enthusiasm that we began our mission across all channels. We commented, explained, and set things straight. I started a long debate on Twitter with the user who had asserted that the Wirtschaftswunder didn’t involve immigrants, and I was quickly stretched to my limits. As soon as I had refuted his argument, he confronted me with new ludicrous claims. I finally gave up, with the sobering realization that there was no hope of reasoning with the Internet trolls, even with solid argumentation.
“If the facts don’t get through to the conspiracy theorists and agitators, we must at least open up the reading audience to the facts”
But if the facts don’t get through to the conspiracy theorists and agitators, we must at least open up the reading audience to the facts. On the website GeschichtsCheck.de, we make factual knowledge available for all those who are confronted with historical claims on the Internet and want to know what’s actually true.
As a historian, Theo Müller not only scours the Internet for historical falsehoods; with similar elaborateness, the twenty-eight-year-old is currently also focusing on his dissertation at Heidelberg University and the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.
The website is easy to find through keywords on search engines and provides users with a tool to distinguish the historical facts from the lies. We regularly scan the Internet to see what historical distortions are currently being circulated, and we write corresponding articles that are then published on GeschichtsCheck.de. It often involves very fundamental questions: whether or not Germany is a sovereign state, why the European Union was established or what the term “racist” exactly means.
But sometimes the topics are more difficult. Recently, for instance, I’ve been noticing a considerable increase in anti-Semitic content. With responses supported by facts, we aim to take an objective approach in countering the often aggressive disparaging comments. We can only effectively tackle the problem of fake news if we ensure that those who are spreading falsehoods on the Internet no longer have a leg to stand on – because the broader public is simply savvier than they are.