Facebook (sort of) Cracking Down on Fake History

Facebook is making good on its recent decision to flag “fake news” through a collaboration with the Associated Press and Snopes.com. You can see this at work in reference to the myth of the Irish slave, which functions along the same lines as the Black Confederate myth. Both attempt to diffuse arguments about race-based slavery in the United States and particularly in the South.

Here is how Facebook is signaling to its users that they may be sharing “disputed” information.

Let me first say that I am not a huge fan of Facebook flagging websites even though I completely agree that this historical narrative lacks any basis in fact and I would like to see the sharing of these websites brought in check. The fight against “fake news” and “fake history” ought to be fought elsewhere, especially in the classroom.

The larger problem is that these popups don’t really address the larger problem on Facebook. You can join hundreds, if not thousands, of Facebook pages that promote all kinds of wacky theories and historical interpretations. Lord knows how much time I have spent on various Black Confederate pages and I suspect that there are just as many devoted to the myth of Irish slaves.

If Facebook was really interested in cracking down on misinformation it would have to do something on this end. But even going this far, as the actor James Woods notes, is unlikely to result in any substantial changes in how users judge information on their social media platforms.

That was not an endorsement of James Woods’s tweet, but was simply meant to point out that this battle will only be won through education.

8 comments… add one
  • Nathan Towne Mar 24, 2017 @ 4:23

    Mr. Levin,

    I agree with your point here and I think that it is a valuable one to make, although I would guess that there are more people who ascribe to the Black Confederate narrative then to this one.

    I would like to raise another related point as well, if you don’t mind. I find it interesting that while historians disagree on a litany of issues, I very often find that when talking to the general public in roundtables/seminars and the like, there will very often be unanimity amongst Historians when discussing an issue that may be contentious amongst some people who are less familiar with pertinent facts relating to that issue because it is not something that is contentious within the field. I hate to frame it as historians vs., because I do not believe that historians operate in conflict with the general public in any way, but I do see fairly routinely historians present a united front on issues/questions raised by the general public in these settings.

    For example, even though we have probably established to this point that you and I disagree on a number of technical issues, when talking to the general public I have little doubt that we would be in agreement as far as the vast majority of core issues are concerned. All in all, this is very much a positive for the field.

    Nathan Towne

  • Patrick Young Mar 21, 2017 @ 18:09

    The myth gained believability in 2008 when NYU Press published the first widely read book on the subject: “White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America,” by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh. Far from a marginal book, it was reviewed favorably by the mainstream media. Here, for example, is what the NY Times said about it:

    “What little discussion there is about this forgotten bit of American history is sometimes linked to those with ulterior political motives, usually interested in delegitimizing current-day discourse about race or the teaching of black history. “White Cargo,” which was first published in Britain last year, has a refreshing sense of distance and neutrality. The authors take care to quote African-American sources and clearly state that they have no wish to play down the horrors of the much larger black slave trade that followed.

    If anything, Jordan and Walsh offer an explanation of how the structures of slavery — black or white — were entwined in the roots of American society. They refrain from drawing links to today, except to remind readers that there are probably tens of millions of Americans who are descended from white slaves without even knowing it.” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/27/books/review/Lau-t.html

    In other words, the notion that everyone who believes the myth got it from a far-right website is nonsense. They were more likely to have encountered it in favorable reviews in the NY Times, The New York Review of Books, or Publishers Weekly. The London Telegraph and several other papers gave it more critical reviews, but this book from a respectable academic press was not simply dismissed as a right-wing fantasy either.

    It was in recent years that the myth seemed to get weaponized. The Canadian website Global Research posted an article in 2008 entitled “The Irish Slave Trade — The Forgotten ‘White’ Slaves.” This is the version of the story that I encounter most often. Because the website is run by Michel Chossudovsky, a professor of economics at the University of Ottawa it was sometimes mistaken for scholarly and was reportedly cited by Scientific American.

    Global Research posts a number of conspiracy theories and “fake histories” among more mainstream posts. It has been accused of promoting anti-semitic writings by at least two Jewish sources.

    Chossudovsky is a frequent contributor to Russia Today.

    Liam Hogan says that the white nationalist Irish Slave Memes are widespread, although, as an Irish American, I have to say that I rarely saw them until a year or two ago.

    Here is the Irish refutation of the Irish Slaves memes:


    The PRI story is pretty off-base in sections, but it has some decent background.

    BTW, Liam Hogan, himself an Irish scholar, has been the primary debunker of the Irish Slave Myth. You can read his dissection of the memes here:

  • Patrick Young Mar 21, 2017 @ 17:20

    Just a few quick notes:

    1. The Irish Slave Myth was not widely circulated before the advent of the internet, at least as it applies to the enslavement Irish in the United States. Growing up I did not know anyone who thought that there were Irish slaves in the U.S.

    2. Some of the debunkers of the myth create a new myth themselves in insisting that the characteristics necessary for a labor relation to be called slavery must be indentical to slavery in the United States in the mid-19th Century South. Slavery existed before the United States was ever conceived and continues to exist today according to many human rights organizations and the United States Department of State.

    3. Until recently, when I did occassionally hear of Irish slavery, it was more likely to be brought up by someone on the left as a matter of solidarity rather than reproach. Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times write Timothy Egan briefly mentions the enslavement of Irish in Barbados by the British in his biography of Thomas Francis Meagher. This is in passing and he offers no new evidence of enslavement. But he is definitely not a white nationalist.

    4. There is an overbroad romanticization of indentured servitude by some of the debunkers.

    5. On its face, the white nationalist use of the Irish slave myth seems to be self-defeating.

  • B Thomas Mar 19, 2017 @ 9:06

    I don’t know. There are many people, most probably, who let their education end at high school more or less. I think something like 80% of Americans never read any book at all after graduation. I’m not sure “fix this through proper education channels” would be the most useful tactic, though obviously it is a good approach.

    You can write all the books you want and teach as best you can, but current 20 year olds are more or less beyond the reach of those sources of information. And they have another 50+ years left to further spread/act on misinformation. While the pop-up is a pretty weak arrow in the quiver, it is better than “wait for the ignorant to die off and hope future generations do better.” If the pop-up slows down even a handful of people from reposting, it may prevent hundreds/thousands of people from seeing And further spreading false information.

    James Woods’ tweet is pretty insane. “A company I dislike disagrees with a statement of fact? That proves it right!” This is the dumbest, most caveman level of “US vs THEM” I have seen in a while.

    • Joshism Mar 19, 2017 @ 11:54

      Snopes is run by a bunch of lie-berals, haven’t you heard?

      The only accurate sources are those used or endorsed by Fox News, Bretbait, and Conservapedia.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2017 @ 12:13

        Your comment points to the ultimate ineffectiveness of Facebook’s new review policy. The goal needs to be to teach people how to judge websites rather than relying on others to do it for you.

        • Tana Anderson Mar 23, 2017 @ 12:08

          Bravo, Mr. Levin.

          James Woods is a very intelligent idiot.

          I have been shutting down spammers sinc 1989, and fake news since Bernie Sanders declared his candidacy on my birthday in 2015. Even good lies are lies.

          How despicable to waste an entire education being too dense to know the truth from a lie. I’m so grateful to have been born to teachers and educators. I value my public school education, and consider it a point of pride to learn a new word daily.

          Thank you for your good work!

  • Charles Mar 19, 2017 @ 8:24

    The AP and Snopes are clearly part of the conspiracy… But seriously, while some will disregard the warning, there are many who are not students of history that may pause before hitting “share.” Although it doesn’t solve the problem, it is a start.

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