‘Fake history’: hunting down false facts about the past

False information and images about the past can now spread more quickly than ever before. We caught up with Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse, social media’s Fake History Hunter, who explains more about the rise of ‘fake’ history, tips on how to spot a fake image, and the most common misconceptions that she encounters online…

An illustration of a 17th century plague doctor

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, one particular photo was gaining attention on social media. According to many of the people who shared the image, it showed a Second World War soldier carrying a donkey on his back, because the animal would otherwise step on a mine and kill the entire unit.

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“It was being used to compare that situation to the people who were refusing to follow the pandemic restrictions we’re living with today,” explains historian Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse. “It got so much attention that an American governor even shared it during a press briefing. But I just knew something was off about the picture. It didn’t feel right.”

Teeuwisse is better known online as the Fake History Hunter. It’s in this guise that she searches social media for history stories and pictures that she knows to be untrue, and then shares why they’re not telling the whole story.

“I’m not the only one,” she explains. “There are accounts like Hoaxeye, Snopes, Picpedant and many others who do the same, but I decided to concentrate just on history-related stories.”

In the case above, Teeuwisse confirmed, through digging deeper online and reverse searching the image, that this ‘Second World War’ photo was taken in 1958. It shows members of the French Foreign Legion in Algeria who found an abandoned foal that they decided to adopt. It later became their mascot and they called her Bambi. “You can imagine that I was quite busy for a few weeks when that picture went viral with the wrong story,” she says.

Taking on the myths

The term ‘fake news’ became Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017. And though the spread of misinformation is nothing new – Octavian, later to become the Roman emperor Augustus, launched a ‘fake news’ war against Mark Antony more than 2,000 years ago – the relatively recent rise of the internet, along with social media, has meant that information and images can now spread more quickly and widely than ever before.

Teeuwisse first became aware of people readily sharing false historical images on the internet a few years ago. What started off as an annoyance, she says, soon became clearly dangerous.

“Obvious myths were being blindly believed and shared by many people, by celebrities or politicians (and sometimes for political reasons) to millions of followers – without fact checking them first, or even a little bit of suspicion.”

Besides people simply believing things that weren’t true, says Teeuwisse, some of these stories were being used to support biased and racist ideas, to attack political opponents, or to mock people. For example, she says, there are those online who think that there were no black people in medieval Europe. “They glorify the European era, while at the same time mocking Africa as having had no civilisation until the region was colonised, that Africans had not even invented the wheel until that moment – which of course they had.”

On another side, explains Teeuwisse, there are some “who think Europeans didn’t know how to bathe or use soap till the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD. Which is also nonsense.”

Although her specialism is in the history of crime and daily life in Europe in the 1920–40s, the subjects that Teeuwisse often encounters in her guise as Fake History Hunter are much more diverse. For instance, she says, the claim that Europeans didn’t wash until at least 8th century AD caused her to research the earliest history of hygiene in Europe.

“I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. I’ve become more and more excited about the Neolithic era,” Teeuwisse explains. “Did you know there were Neolithic stone houses with indoor sanitation on the Orkney Islands?”

Medieval history was a subject that “needed a lot more space” on her blog, Teeuwisse says, “to explain that no, people didn’t all have bad teeth, they didn’t all die young, not only the clergy could read, people didn’t empty chamber pots from their windows into the streets, they didn’t think the world was flat, etc.”

Interior of Neolithic Hut at Skara Brae
Interior of Neolithic Hut at Skara Brae Neolithic settlement, Orkney, where stone ‘furniture’ can be seen. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

Case closed: and now the work begins

“Once you find out when and where the photo was really taken, you know for sure that it was indeed from a different era, staged or just completely fake. But you also have proof,” she says. “This is a glorious moment, a mystery is solved, the case is cracked! But then the battle begins, to get people to stop spreading the old story.”

This can involve stepping up to accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers and attempting to show them (and those followers) that some of their tweets are nonsense. “People don’t always appreciate being corrected and some can’t face the fact that the truth doesn’t fit their bias.”

Certain myths, she says, have become general preconceptions, particularly around famous moments in pop culture. “There are countless people claiming that the first gay kiss was broadcast on television in the 1990s on LA Law and that the first interracial kiss on TV was on Star Trek in the 1960s,” says Teeuwisse. “But both of those claims are wrong, and often based on the fact that some Americans seem to not realise that that other countries had television too.”

Not TV's first interracial kiss
“There are countless people claiming that the first interracial kiss on TV was on Star Trek in the 1960s,” says Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse. (Image by Alamy)

In fact, the first kiss between two women was broadcast on Brazilian TV in 1963, while the first kiss between two men was broadcast on Dutch TV in 1970, closely followed by the UK a few months later, while the first interracial kiss on TV was between either Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz in 1951 on the TV show I Love Lucy, or Lloyd Reckord and Andrée Melly in 1959 on ITV in Britain, (“depending on one’s definition of interracial”, says Teeuwisse. “The question of race is obviously a strange one and not scientific, though Desi Arnaz was of Cuban-American heritage which makes the kiss ‘interracial’ for some.”)

“Telling people that Star Trek was not the first infuriated quite a few of the show’s fans and got me blocked by William Shatner,” says Teeuwisse.

Tips for spotting a ‘fake’ history image

With countless historical images, facts and figures shared online each day, how do you go about sorting the real history from the fake?

Sometimes the process begins with Teeuwisse spotting a picture that doesn’t seem to quite fit the description. “Is that photo really from the 1920s, is that really that famous person, did what the photo shows really happen?” she says.

“I can’t always put my finger on it, but after having studied, in detail, thousands and thousands of pictures, images and films from that era, you just feel it when something is off.” But just a feeling isn’t enough; to convince people you have to be able to prove it.  For Teeuwisse, that is part of the fun. “The hunt for the truth is like solving a crime, you trace the evidence to its source.”

Teeuwisse also shares three tips when sharing historical images:

1) Think about the source. If the article or picture doesn’t show a (historical) source, or the person sharing the story can’t provide one, doubt it! Without a source all you’re doing is someone sharing something someone said.

2) Before sharing something, do a quick online search. It only takes a few seconds and can save you from looking foolish.

3) If you’re suspicious of a picture, do a reverse image search. Simply drag the image into a site such as Google Images, Tineye or Yandex, and see what pops up.

Fake history and current affairs

Many historical images shared online are influenced by current affairs. “The pandemic flooded Twitter with pictures that many people thought were related to the Spanish Flu (but weren’t), pictures of ‘medieval’ plague doctors with beaked masks (who weren’t medieval, but 17th century) but also the long outdated (or so I hoped) ideas of medieval Europeans being filthy and never washing.”

The coronavirus pandemic flooded Twitter with pictures of ‘medieval’ plague doctors with beaked masks (who weren't medieval, but 17th century), says Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse, social media’s Fake History Hunter. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images)
The coronavirus pandemic flooded Twitter with pictures of ‘medieval’ plague doctors with beaked masks (who weren’t medieval, but 17th century), says Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images)

Sometimes there’s the need to address a ‘half myth’ that has sprung up, but still fails to tell the whole story. Often, Teeuwisse will see the accusation that Hugo Boss designed the Nazi uniforms. Except that he didn’t. Certainly, Boss owned a clothing company that was one of several who were commissioned to manufacture uniforms for the Nazis, and gained a few very lucrative contracts. But he was never asked to design them.

“That doesn’t absolve Boss,” says Teeuwisse. “Many people agree that the Nazi uniforms look ‘good’, and this attributes talent to Boss. But without that, all that is left is yet another war profiteer who also made use of slave labour and was a very keen supporter of the Nazi ideology. If anything, the truth makes Boss worse.”

A Schutzstaffel (SS), uniform, cap for leaders, 1930s. The Hugo Boss clothing company was commissioned to manufacture uniforms for the Nazis, but it did not design them. (Image by Alamy)
A Schutzstaffel (SS) cap, 1930s. The Hugo Boss clothing company was commissioned to manufacture uniforms for the Nazis, but it did not design them. (Image by Alamy)

At a time when our news is filled with images of the pandemic, armed insurrection and geopolitical turmoil, more and more people are turning to the past to understand or add context – and it means that Teeuwisse and others who take on the spread of fake history are busier than ever.

In January 2021, when the Capitol Building in Washington DC was besieged and one of those photographed inside the Capitol wore horns on his head, Teeuwisse found she had to explain to a lot of people that he “was not a Viking; that Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets” and that he was more likely wearing a Native American Bison headdress. “This made that situation even more complicated,” she says. Indeed, in the days and weeks after the insurrection there was much interrogation of the many historical symbols appropriated by white nationalists.

The picture is always more complicated, it seems, with images rarely able to tell the whole story, and still others repurposed or edited to wilfully support false ones. “It keeps what I’m doing exciting and interesting, at least,” says Teeuwisse. “I never know what the next topic going around the internet will be.”

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You can find out more about Fake History Hunter at her website, or on Twitter @fakehistoryhunt

About Fake History Hunter

Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse was born in the Netherlands and after a short career making documentaries and working on history-related films and TV shows, she decided she wanted to do more with her passion for history. She turned her production company into a historical consultancy and became a full-time historian instead.

I’ve been obsessed with history for as long as I can remember,” says Teeuwisse. “I devoured all the books I could find and pestered my parents to take me to castles and museums while on holiday instead of spending time at the beach. I was lucky enough to be able to turn this passion into a job.”

During her time on TV and film sets, Teeuwisse was able to advise directors on whether elements in a scene were historically accurate, or whether the image selected for an exhibit was a fake. It was, she admits, sometimes a nice excuse to show off historical knowledge. “I rather enjoyed explaining why they were wrong, according to available evidence and the most current ideas that historians had on the subject.”

But the satisfaction didn’t come necessarily from being ‘right’ or the act of correcting someone, says Teeuwisse; instead it was about getting them excited about how historians might think and debate about an object or event.

“Learning something new is fun, especially if it replaces something you were convinced of to be true but isn’t, and even more so if it’s a generally held misconception.”