Deepfaked speeches and contested facts: how today's historians manage to do their job

Deepfakes. Political bias. Contested facts. How can historians possibly nail the truth in our polarized times? A panel of top historians — all of them Cundill History Prize finalists and winners — explain why the challenge is formidable, yet nothing new.

Cundill History Prize finalists and winners explain why the challenge is formidable yet nothing new

Thinking about the field of history in this age of misinformation, manipulation, and misrepresentation, Three Cundill Forum historians at McGill University in Montreal, November 2019: Jill Lepore, Julia Lovell, Maya Jasanoff and moderator Faith Wallis. Not pictured, historian Mary Fulbrook (Lanya Feng)

* Originally published on February 17, 2020.

A U.S president informs the shocked nation that a space mission has ended tragically, killing all its astronauts. The message was delivered in a 1969 speech by Richard Nixon which historian Faith Wallis saw on YouTube recently. 

But the speech was never given, and the lunar tragedy never happened. The video of this "newscast" was a deepfake.

Technology now allows words to be convincingly grafted onto existing news footage, and for altered visual records of the past to look authentic. Since disinformation and political extremism are also flourishing, Faith Wallis wondered, what does all this mean for the work of historians today? 

That question was the starting point for a discussion that she moderated last November at McGill University in Montreal, where a dynamic group of top historians and authors — all of them winners or finalists for the Cundill History Prize — gathered to reflect on the challenges of ensuring "true history in the era of fake news." 

At a U.S. National Archives exhibit, historian Faith Wallis says, a number of pictures from the women's march on the day of Donald Trump's inauguration, included blurred out anti-Trump messages on posters. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The Trump presidency has brought these issues to the fore. Harvard historian Jill Lepore is the author of These Truths: A History of the United States. She sees in her country  "a general degradation of the idea that there is such a thing as historical truth to be found." 

Ironically, says Lepore, in a polarized political landscape, that point "seems to be one of the few things (on which)...American politicians agree." 

The 2019 Cundil winner, Julia Lovell (Maoism, a Global History) sees obfuscation and distortion of facts evident in the colonial history of her native U.K., as well. 

For example, "the way that British and American and Australian security services colluded to conceal the nature of what was happening with...huge massacres in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966." 

She is troubled by the ongoing state "concealment," and "extremely problematically low (public) awareness" of these massacres, which she calls "some of the most intense post-World War 2 killings...particularly of the Cold War" period.

Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians are believed to have been killed for by the military during anti-communist massacres during the Cold War in 1965. This man holds prison release papers after 8 year in jail for suspected ties to the country's communist party. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Since history is, as Churchill famously said, generally "written by the victors," it is incumbent on scholars to research thoroughly and include multiple points of view, asserts Lovell.

Victims and marginal voices help correct the balance. Yet British historian Mary Fulbrook, author of Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecutions and the Quest for Justice, noted that in Holocaust research," survivors very often report things that were rumour or gossip at the time."

These contribute perspective but not objective evidence. Still, Fulbrook believes that "the more sources you read and the more sources you put together, the better."

For Maya Jasanoff, 2018 Cundill Prize winner (The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World) historians need to put all "these voices on the record." She thinks the public needs to be made "aware of how we have to look at sources closely...think about who the teller is," and to put sources in context.

Julia Lovell points to the reality that — even when approaching their work with rigour, integrity, and originality — scholars may be affected by their own place and time.

"Inevitably, the research questions are very much shaped by our own environment. There's that famous quotation that 'all history is contemporary history.'" 

Guests in this episode:

  • Mary Fulbrook of University College, London was a 2019 Cundill finalist for Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecutions and the Quest for Justice.
  • Maya Jasanoff is a historian at Harvard University, and wrote The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, which won the 2018 Cundill History Prize.
  • Jill Lepore is a historian at Harvard, an essayist for The New Yorker, and author of 2019 Cundill finalist These Truths: A History of the United States.
  • Julia Lovell of the University of London won the 2019 Cundill History Prize for her book, Maoism, a Global History.

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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