Challenges History Educators Face Presenting the Past in the Digital World

I read with interest Sam Wineburg’s “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.”[1]  I recognize that the internet can provide unfiltered information to students who may not have the critical thinking skills to decipher “fake news” and “alternative facts” from reliable sources.  Indeed, I have had occasional students cite Google as their source without recognizing that everything on Google is written by someone.

Yet, Wineburg’s second lesson is not as easy as he described in 2016. Wineburg’s first lesson is straightforward: ask who is authoring the site. But the second recommendation–find out who is linking to a site–is not simple.  I tried the website Wineburg offered in 2016:, but it now takes us to a domain registration site.  I googled how to find out what backlinks exist for websites and got an array of services that will tell you how to find out what sites link to your own and one Semrush that will tell you about links to sites, but it is subscription only after ten searches.  The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Simon Wiesenthal Center track hate groups but do not provide a way to fact-check or search the backlinks to a website.  This is an interesting tool that I think could be immensely useful.  Please comment below if you are reading this and know of a tool that would do this.

Wineburg also found that in 2016 a search of “Hitler” brought up the Adolf Hitler Historical Museum.  He notes, “We know that students assess credibility by how far up an entry is on a Google search; we see that this one is way up there.”  I tried to replicate the search, and the “Museum” is only available through Internet Archives. 

But more interesting (and hopeful) to me is that my searches yield reputable, edited cultural resources. Even when, or especially when, I asked, “Is the Holocaust real?” I did not get troubling links. Instead, the United States Holocaust Museum, the Museum of Tolerance, and the Anti-Defamation League point me to solid research that shows how real and horrific it was.  NBC News pops up to point out that alarming numbers of Americans know nothing about the Holocaust, and Wikipedia offers an article about Holocaust deniers.

Screenshot of Google search in June 2023.

While I am certain that my search history would not suggest an interest in Holocaust denial, I also suspect that the Google algorithms are set to address this problem. Google has changed its algorithm, though it has been quiet about the specifics of that change. Safiya U. Noble reported in Algorithms of Oppression in 2018 that the hits she got when she first typed in “black girls” in the early 2010s were all porn sites; by the time she was writing in 2016, less offensive hits were rising to the top.[2] One must now search for pornography if that is what one is looking for.

THis does not, however, mean that racism and sexism have been sufficiently addressed. Wikipedia remains dominated by male-focused history and biography.[3]  My own efforts as a Wikipedia editor have been less than satisfactory.  My field of expertise is US girlhood, and I have published numerous articles and a book on the Camp Fire Girls. I tried over two weeks to change the opening line from “Camp Fire is a co-educational youth organization” to “Camp Fire is a youth organization open to all genders,” a term the organization’s own leadership uses to recognize gender fluidity, to no avail.  Going to the comment and annotation pages did not provide relief, and I did not raise the level of the dispute to Wikipedia mediators since it was already costing me more time, energy, and worry than I deemed healthy. The people who monitor the page are committed alums from the organization–from a time when they didn’t even let boys in. Indeed, one private FaceBook group is for Camp Fire Girls alone and ignores the boys and men who began to join Camp Fire in the 1970s.

My own strategy, as an instructor, is to follow Wineburg’s recommendation to teach historical thinking, to help students think through the origins, biases, background, audience, and context of the sources (past and present) that they encounter.  I’ve also led and participated in focused Wikipedia-edit-authons and found that these opportunities open students’ eyes to authoring and editing. (These have focused on adding content to topics that connect to our University Library’s archives.) Students become more aware that there are people just like them behind the articles they read.

[1] Wineburg, Sam. “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.” History News 71, no. 2. 2016.

[2] Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. United States: NYU Press, 2018.

[3] Bergen, Sadie. “Linking In: How Historians are Fighting Wikipedia’s Biases.” Perspectives on History (blog). September 3, 2016.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *