Finding and hunting Fake History can be quite tricky, but here are a few tips that can help you figure out if something shared online is true or not.
This is a work in progress, I’ll add more, update it, change things, etc.
In part based on suggestions and input from you.
I will discuss the research of Claims, Quotations & Images in this article.
Proving claims wrong is tricky and it is even harder to write instructions and tips for that.
I’m afraid that this just involves a lot of research, googling, reading books, talking to experts, and so on.
But one tip I can give you is that a random blog, some website, a TikTok or Youtube video is completely worthless if it doesn’t back up their story with actual sources.
If you find an article or of someone you’re debating shares one to try and prove you wrong, go straight to the bottom of the page or to the description of the video and look for references.
Where did they get this information from?
How do we know they’re not just making it up?
Shakespeare was an alien?
Great, where is the proof?
Try and look at every claim like a criminal investigation, you need witnesses, records, books written by experts, museum collections, and so on.
Google is great but if all you’ve got is the first couple of search results, you’re not going to be very convincing.
And yes, remember that not everything is about having a different point of view or perspective, some things are just wrong.
I must admit I’ve been quite surprised at how badly people can back up what they claim and I think schools should perhaps spend a little less time teaching kids facts and a bit more time teaching them how to know research that what they’re being told.
I know, nobody wants teenagers to be stubborn, nosy and ask too many questions, it is not going to make bringing up children or teaching them in school any easier if you teach them not to blindly trust everything they’re being told.
But if giving them the tools, knowledge, ability and permission to ask critical questions and how to fact-check their parents, teachers and peers, I am convinced we’ll end up with a better world.
Especially these days when we’re flooded with smooth, impressive looking videos, professionally Photoshopped images and just such a torrent of misinformation, it is extra important that everybody learns not just how to to fact-check what they’re being told but also how to disprove fake history and news and how to prove their own claims.
Which is why I am extremely proud when I’m told by teachers that they use some of my debunking in their classrooms!
So, what to look for when trying to find evidence for a claim.
The most important part of any research is trying to trace it to it’s original source, it often happens that someone writes something and for decades others just copy and share it without fact checking the original claim.
Which can be quite dangerous when the people doing this are actually established and trusted historians.
A myth or misconception can become “truth” because of this kind of behaviour.
When trying to research if Queen Elizabeth I really rarely bathed and said “whether I need it or not”, I found this claim repeated in books by well known authors I respect and who’s research I trust, but even they had heard this story so often they believed it to be true, it isn’t.
The closer you get to the original source the more valuable (but not perfect) your source is, so when researching a claim, try to find out where it came from.
If you want to prove some medieval person said something but you can’t get any closer to it than the 1800s, there’s something wrong.
This is a handy little tool that let’s you look for how much certain words appear in the tens of millions of books and magazines Google has scanned.
You can find the Ngram viewer by clicking here.
It can help you find out when a text was more likely to have been written, for instance in this example you can see that the word ‘television’ very rarely appeared in magazines and books before the 1920s, earlier appearances may have been scan errors of words that are similar or used in a different way than we do.
But this can tell us that if we have a text that mentions television, it’s unlikely to predate the 1920s.
Finally, a few words about Wikipedia.
When you’re having an online debate with someone the sharing of a Wikipedia article often results in being mocked, everybody knows that website can easily be altered by anyone and is totally untrustworthy, even the co-founder says so…
But the fact is that this website is still more valuable, more neutral and provides more sources and references than pretty much most random blogs and articles people drag into the debate after they laughed at you for using Wikipedia.
Yes, anyone can alter the articles but it’s not as easy as people think, if I decide to change the page about Miss Universe to make it look like I won it 3 years in a row, it will be changed before I finish my bottle of mead.
Not that I tried, honest I haven’t.
But Wikipedia is a very transparent website, on every page you can see the revision history, who’s been altering it, how, why and so on.
In my experience, overall, what I found on Wikipedia is pretty reliable.
Still, people should treat it for what it is; an online reference website, no more, no less.
You can find articles on everything and they almost all have lots of lovely sources, references and links that can help you further with your investigation.
Most historians, journalists, students, researchers, educators, scholars, academics and so on, I know start their research with Wikipedia and are not afraid to admit it.
But, and this is important; this free encyclopedia can be your first step but shouldn’t be your last.
Begin here, look up the basic stuff, note the book titles, the names of experts, follow the links and go from there.
My last tip involves searching Twitter, this social media website has a nifty search tool that can help you figure out if something has already been investigated, proven wrong and so on.
There are several accounts that fight misinformation, fake news, tampered pictures, and so on, here are a few of them;
If you know of any more accounts that do this kind of work, let me know.
But besides the regular basic search, Twitter also has an advanced search option which is really rather handy.
For instance it allows you to search for tweets about certain subjects by certain accounts.
So in stead of asking me if I’ve ever posted anything about Vikings having horns on their helmets, you can just search all my tweets for the words ‘vikings’ and ‘horns’.
This way you don’t have to ask me or any of the other accounts if they’ve perhaps posted about this subject you’re curious about.
When you spot a quote being shared online that you don’t trust, figuring out if that funny or smart thing was really said or written by that funny or smart famous historical figure can involve a lot of research, after all you’ll have to go through everything they ever said or wrote.
But thankfully others have often already done that work for us.
So when you spot a quotation online that you don’t trust you can look for it by going to;
Or look them up in one of these books;
- The new Yale book of quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro
- Hemingway Didn’t Say That, by Garson O’Toole
If you can’t find the quotation there, your suspicions are probably justified.
Just because you find them on websites that are dedicated to sharing quotes or because they’re shared online with a pretty picture does not mean they’re properly attributed.
A quote is only real when it can be proven that the person who’s connected to it actually wrote or said it before anyone else.
If the sites and books above can’t help you and you still really want to figure out if the quotation you found is genuine, you can look for more detailed sources, some famous historical figures have their own books and websites about everything they said and didn’t say.
A few I’ve used are;
- ‘Churchill by himself’, by Richard Langworth
And if you’re still stuck, then you can ask me on Twitter or send a nice polite email to the Quote Investigator.
If you see a picture being shared online and you don’t trust the description, you’ll have to do a bit of detective work.
It really helps if you have decades of research and image analysis experience, because you’ll be able to just look at a photo and know that it’s not really from the 1920s but actually from the 1930s for instance.
You’ll see the fashion, the hairstyles, the way the photo was taken, the age of the architecture, and so on, and just get a sense for something being not quite right.
But of course you’ll still need to prove it if you want to explain to others what’s wrong.
The easiest and fastest way to find out the story behind a photo is by putting it through an internet search engine, quite a few of the ones you probably already use have a reverse-image option.
Here are some of the ones I use;
There are also other tools and applications for mobile devices, but I haven’t got any of those, not even a mobile phone, so I can’t say much about those.
But feel free to send me tips on what else is out there.
Anyway, with these websites all you have to do is drag the suspicious photo into the search option and these engines will try and find it everywhere on the internet.
Yes, I use all four of them because they all have different results and different qualities.
Bing for instance has a wonderful extra tool that recognises words in an image and turns it into copyable text.
So when I was researching a crime committed in Paris in 1903, I would just take screenshots of old French newspapers, let Bing lift the words off the images and then I’d make Google translate those into English.
Most important for our research here though is that these websites can help us find the oldest upload of the picture.
After all, the odds of the person who originally put the photo on the internet knowing more about it are pretty good.
Also extremely helpful is that these engines can find the biggest version of the photo on the internet.
Not only may this lead us to someone who owns the original image but it also allows us to study it in more detail.
This is how I first realised that photo of Bertha Benz from 1880 might not be genuine… a much bigger copy of the picture showed me that her sons were wearing modern shoes!
Often these searches will lead you to a Photo Stock company website, they can be quite a goldmine of information when it comes to old images.
But be careful, they also sometimes have incorrect descriptions and don’t care about correcting them, I tried.
Sometimes the investigation will take you to websites that have long gone from the internet, it can be terribly frustrating to find a mention somewhere on the internet about the subject you’re looking for but then find an empty page when you click the link.
The internet is getting old, we’re getting old, websites come and go.
Luckily there is a website that has been archiving hundreds of billions (yes really) web pages for many years and you can check their archive online!
The website is the Internet Archive, that you can find at www.archive.org and it is a lifesaver for researchers.
If you’re lucky you can suddenly see the blog, article or tweet that you thought was gone for ever.
It can also be a bit embarrassing of course, as you’ll find out when you can’t resist looking up your first website or that profile you had on that poetry forum during your teenage years…
Seriously though, for research this website is a gift from heaven.
Besides having an archive of old webpages you’ll also find millions of books, audio recordings, videos, images and software on there.
A great solution if you can’t afford to buy lots of books or if the one you’re looking for is no longer available or is hidden in some library somewhere.
I have a ridiculously large library at home, with way too many books, it’s a bit of an addiction, but I’m glad I got to look up some of the things for the book you’re now reading on this website in stead of having to buy yet another book and wait for it to be shipped to my home.
But when it comes to finding the actual origin of a photo, the best sources are of course museums and archives, many these days have wonderful online archives as well, make sure you check those out.
And sometimes you just have to be a bit forward and contact them, more than once a myth has been busted by me just sending a message on social media or via email asking them about the picture.
Thousands of people, perhaps even millions, have been arguing about the truth behind a photo while all it took to solve the mystery was one call to a lovely lady at a desk somewhere who easily found the picture in a file cabinet with the original description.
As I mentioned, this article is a work in progress, feel free to share tips, social media accounts, applications, etc. you think I could/should add.
And if I’ve forgotten your account or name, I’m sorry, let me know, probably didn’t do it on purpose but just because I write faster than I think 😉
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Picture(s) found online, used for (re-)educational purposes only.
I do not own the copyrights to these images, I only share them here for educational purposes to try and make sure the real story behind it becomes known and people will stop spreading false information.
If the copyright owner objects to the sharing here, kindly contact me and I shall alter the article.
If you’re interested in using any of the images here get in touch with the copyright owners mentioned in the article.
Feel free to contact me with questions.