If timing is everything, history professor Mills Kelly didn’t have such great timing for his infamous course “Lying About the Past.” Taught at George Mason University for the first time in 2008, and then again in 2012—both, notably, election years, although now seemingly from a distant era of democracy—the course stirred enormous controversy and then was never taught again in the face of institutional and external objections. Some of those objections understandably remain, but “Lying About the Past” now seems incredibly prescient and relevant.
Unlike other history courses, “Lying About the Past” did not focus on truths about the past, but on historical hoaxes. As a historian of Eastern Europe, Kelly knew a thing or two about how governments and other organizations can shape public opinion through the careful crafting of false, but quite believable, information. Also a digital historian, Kelly understood how modern tools like Photoshop could give even a college student the ability to create historical fakes, and then to disseminate those fakes widely online.
In 2008, students in the course collaborated on a fabricated pirate, Edward Owens, who supposedly roamed the high (or low) seas of the Chesapeake Bay in the 1870s. (In a bit of genius marketing, they called him “The Last American Pirate.”) In 2012, the class made a previously unknown New York City serial killer materialize out of “recently found” newspaper articles and other documents.
It was less the intellectual focus of the course, which was really about the nature of historical truth and the importance of careful research, than the dissemination of the hoaxes themselves that got Kelly and his classes in trouble. In perhaps an impolitic move, the students ended up adding and modifying articles on Wikipedia, and as YouTube recently discovered, you don’t mess with Wikipedia. Although much of the course was dedicated to the ethics of historical fakes, for many who looked at “Lying About the Past,” the public activities of the students crossed an ethical line.
But as we have learned over the last two years, the mechanisms of dissemination are just as important as the fake information being disseminated. A decade ago, Kelly’s students were exploring what became the dark arts of Russian trolls, putting their hoaxes on Twitter and Reddit and seeing the reactive behaviors of gullible forums. They learned a great deal about the circulation of information, especially when bits of fake history and forged documents align with political and cultural communities.
As Yoni Appelbaum, a fellow historian, assessed the outcome of “Lying About the Past” more generously than the pundits who piled on once the course circulated on cable TV:
If there’s a simple lesson in all of this, it’s that hoaxes tend to thrive in communities which exhibit high levels of trust. But on the Internet, where identities are malleable and uncertain, we all might be well advised to err on the side of skepticism.
History unfortunately shows that erring on the side of skepticism has not exactly been a widespread human trait. Indeed, “Lying About the Past” showed the opposite: that those who know just enough history to make plausible, but false, variations in its record, and then know how to push those fakes to the right circles, have the chance to alter history itself.
Maybe it’s a good time to teach some version of “Lying About the Past” again.