Do Historians Have a Responsibility to Warn the Public About Misleading Websites?


Mr. Bytwerk is the author most recently of Bending Spines: The Propagandas of Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic (Michigan State University Press, August 2004).

For the last several years, anyone doing a Google search for "Hitler" gets, as the first result, the "Hitler Historical Museum." This claims to be an unbiased site devoted to historical truth. It is instead a neo-Nazi site. It is anonymous (the registered owner is "united. thought"). Its mailing address is a strip mall in Herndon, VA. Many of its links are to other neo-Nazi sites, and its information is not entirely reliable.

Despite that fact, it is linked to by several thousand sites around the world, including some with .edu addresses. Although I can't determine its traffic, its #1 position on Google surely produces lots of visitors, most of whom will not realize where they have ended up. They will get a peculiar slant on German history. There are surely other dubious sources out there, but I use the HHM since it is a particularly egregious example.

Why should historians care?

The Internet is increasingly the place people turn to for information. Surely historians should have an interest in the quality of public information. Harold Marcuse made this point at a 2004 GSA roundtable (click here for the text of his remarks). He provides excellent suggestions, including:

1. We can publish our research (and our teaching, and even our students' research) on the Internet in appropriate formats.

2. We can assess, on the Internet, materials already available there, by: a) participating in on-line forums (esp. those that are archived, like H-German); b) utilizing customer review features on sites like amazon.com, and c) having annotated links on our own research pages. This latter point is especially crucial, since search engines-the primary means most people use to access information on the Internet- use links to rank pages. We need to transcend and "re-rank" search results, so that over time search engines will "come into line."

That leads me to several specific proposals that I would like to toss out for discussion.

1. We should all pay attention to our institution's web sites. As I said, I found a number of .edu sites that link to the "Hitler Historical Museum."

2. Some of us can do what we can to reduce the number of links to the site. For example, I have removed about 20 links to the site from Wikipedia (which anyone can edit) from about a dozen language sites. This is worth doing, since whatever one thinks of the Wikipedia project, an astonishing number of people, including many of our students, use it. It also requires continuing monitoring, since there is nothing to prevent people from putting the links back on Wikipedia. I've emailed sites that look to be linking to the HHM in ignorance urging them to remove the link, with some success. It takes Google a while to register such changes, but I'm hoping that over time, the reduced number of links from reliable sites will lower the HHM's Google ranking.

3. Finally, following Marcuse's suggestion, we might consciously choose to link to high quality sources. The more links to such sources, the higher their ranking on the search engines will be. We don't all have to link to the same sites, but if people could agree on a few of the best sites on the Internet, it would surely help (e.g., Gerhard Rempel's site). I don't find a lot of good sites with .edu addresses, but it might be a good project for someone to develop a solid page on Hitler. My German Propaganda Archive, for example, averages about 8,000 visitors a day, and has led to all sorts of interesting things.

As one historian put it when I recently proposed this idea: "I must confess that I'm not entirely sure how successful this enterprise will be; it may well be that the racists & fanatics are more obsessive in their glorification of Hitler than our community in the work of Aufklärung [Enlightenment]."

I hope that is not the case. I'd be interested in hearing whether anyone else thinks this is a challenge worth undertaking.

This article first appeared on the H-NET List on German History on April 7, 2006.

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The internet is powerful tool. It is also feeding epidemics of laziness and attention deficit disorders.

A little common sense may go a long way here.

1. Website with anonymous or utterly unreachable owners or managers are prima facie dubious. They should not be linked to as a matter of principle.

2. Every website needs to be double- or triple-checked against completely independent alternative sources. (As indeed, historians and journalists should try to do with ANY source, internet or non-internet).

3. Google needs a swift hard kick to its backside. It is ridiculous that there is only one (sensationalistic and scandal-driven) way of ranking search results.

4. Historians should not assume that these kinds of problems are going to fix themselves.

N. Friedman - 4/17/2006


You should read back to your post regarding Ms. Klinghoffer's article and the bias which results from the Google approach - as I mentione to you.

Other than that, your points are well taken.

Hanna Järvinen - 4/17/2006

I agree that the first step for all of us teaching history is to ensure all of our students know exactly what critical thinking entails, and how important it is. Today, this means we have to take into account that they use the web, and that they will think the most popular pages are better than the rest. Disparaging something because it is popular or treating it with a condescending attitude is to isolate yourself in an academic ivory tower.

The second step, however, is much harder. It entails us speaking more openly about the problems of historiography. When we mask our own arguments as "objective knowledge" without acknowledging that matters of opinion influence the writing of any history, is it really surprising that others can convince our audiences their opinions are equally true?

But part of this issue is that the most reliable scholarly work - the stuff we historians rely upon - is not freely available at the Internet, not even via GoogleScholar. The wiki project is one way of providing reliable information to the users, another is open access publication. Some scholarly journals already allow for the authors to paste a version or at least an abstract of their work on open access (e.g. .edu) sites. Through providing reliable sites with critical papers on the topic and through contributing to such sites ourselves, we can encourage critical thinking also in parts of the world where even scholars cannot afford the journals or their electronic versions.

Vladimir Allen Toman - 4/17/2006

Mr. Randall Bytwerk:

I concur with Mr. Peter Clarke. The turn the W.W.W. is taking is of great concern and needs to be 'policed' by persons such as yourselves; by all of us. It is not an easy task.

Adding to your proposed list:
#4 - Pen a professional letter to Mr. Larry Page co-signed by your colleagues explaining the nature of linking, it can inflict more harm than good. Mr. Page (and company) are young, still influenced by the high-schoolish popularity contests, obviously.

The positive being Mr. Page has himself stood before a scanner to digitize books (to make them accessible on the W.W.W.) ... and we all know that the World's Most Powerful Search Engine has many, many (good) books.

The negative being Mr. Page is in business. Link strategy increases his company's revenues (he could care less how, why people link websites, that information is relevant). Therefore, a proposed suggestion as to how Mr. Page can maintain his revenue machine without these highschool popularity links may be in order.

Mr. Page knows in his heart that you are on target. He ranks his own invention a 3 out of 10. Your expertise can enlighten him as to how the 3 can double.

#5 Devise a Historian Accredidation logo that which links back to a certification website. This places the Bytwerk Mark of Excellence appropriately on the website. Naturally, the logo can be deceptively copied, however, the link back to the certification website (maintained by an Historical Association of sorts) cannot be duped.

Footnote #1: The British Library Gallery has an excellent collection of virtual journals. I take particularly to one of Leonardo da Vinci's journals. It's a GREAT experience.

Footnote #2: Speaking of journals. Blogs are journals. Comment forms on blogs render these blogs as forums, of sorts (I call them blognaughts). The danger being that each comment form is an open door to spam. 75,000 new blogs per day = 75,000 new open doors to spam. Spam accounts for over 67% of all emails. That in itself is a staggering number.

Footnote#3: less than 1% of the 10 billion indexed web pages on the W.W.W. follow web standards and validate. This is a good indication of who cares; how many do not.

Yes. There is much work to be done by us all.

Kind Regards,
Vladimir A. Toman