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From the Letters to the Editor column in the September 2001 Perspectives

The Dangers of the Web

Michael Bellesiles, September 2001

To the Editor:

I have appreciated the many articles on cyberspace published lately in Perspectives. I do feel, however, that we have not yet adequately addressed one of the largest threats posed to history by the Web—the deliberate falsification of the past.

Most teachers recognize the pitfalls of relying on the Web for information. Too many students looking for shortcuts when writing research papers turn first to the Web, a fount of misinformation. Most notorious are the Holocaust denial sites, which are regularly monitored by the Anti-Defamation League (see www.adl.org/holocaust/introduction.
html). Not so well known are a number of less dramatic but equally inaccurate sites, many of which are directed at immediate political concerns. For instance, one group opposed to the World Trade Organization set up a phony GATT site, fooling many, including a conference of international lawyers. Its false documents can easily find their way into a student's paper.

My daughter recently did a paper on an African American inventor and discovered a college-based site that mocked Black History Month with a seemingly authentic list of prominent African Americans who had invented such wonders as the door knob and pocketed underwear for men. Two students in my daughter's class based their reports on this information, but the class discovered that the names of the inventors existed only on the web site.

Historically, misleading web sites usually exist for ideological purposes, though they are not always explicit about it. Such sites aim to construct a false vision of the past to persuade the reader to believe in a particular interpretation of events. A long time ago, I downloaded George Washington's Farewell Address from a "patriotic" web site only to discover that the document had been edited to suit the goals of the site (which was opposed to federal taxes of any kind) and that references to payment of taxes as a patriotic duty or the need to "cherish the public debt" had been deleted.

Many people have labeled the Web "democratic." I believe "chaotic" is more appropriate. In addition to falsified visions of the past (and plagiarized term papers), the Web also offers myths and urban legends as fact, and presents ideologies and conspiracy theories as history. I do not know what the AHA can do to combat the many hazards that confront us on the Web, but I do think that we should temper our enthusiasm for this medium with a careful consideration of the dangers it presents to our teaching and research.

—Michael Bellesiles
Emory University