Historical Analogy, Covid-19, and the 2020 US Election: How Historical Misinformation Undermines Democratic Institutions

Social Data Research Fellowship

Abstract

Understanding how history is used and abused is essential to unmasking falsification in the public register. This project researches the use of historical analogies amidst the Covid-19 crisis in the lead up to and aftermath of the 2020 US election to analyze the role of social media in normalizing misinformation. In this multiplatform data analysis, we explore how far-right extremist and populist groups use false historical claims to cultivate civic mistrust in institutions and experts and evaluate in what way this enters the mainstream. By evoking historical analogies, from the legacy of National Socialism to a mythic vision of the American historical past, they foment civil discord around hot-button issues including race, immigration, and disease origin and transmission, and large-scale state investment in the economy, public health, and lockdown measures. We will map out how this delegitimizes liberal democratic institutions, policies, and traditions by rewriting the histories that undergird them, histories that are themselves fraught especially on matters of race. Our research asks: What tactics, strategies, networks, and repertoires enable these misinformation campaigns to take hold? How and in what way does it bubble up from social media into the mainstream? And to what extent is it drawing from or pushing the agendas of mainstream political actors in the US election campaign? The data generated from this research will provide a baseline of analysis for more comparative work considering the role of radical and populist actors in shaping how history is used to advance undemocratic agendas through participatory media.

Research Team

Principal Investigator

Jennifer Evans

Full Professor, Carleton University

  • Bio ▾

    Jennifer Evans is professor of history at Carleton University and a member of Royal Society of Canada. Her research revolves around histories of love, hate, sexuality, and everyday life in contemporary Germany and transnational perspective. In recent years, she has turned to the role of memory in social media and how populists use historical claims to spread misinformation. Together with colleagues at Carleton, she is undertaking a multiplatform analysis of memory and misinformation in the Canadian social mediascape (https://carleton.ca/populistpublics). Her SSRC fellowship explores the circulation of historical analogies during the Covid-19 pandemic in the lead up to the US election.

    Alongside her academic work, Evans undertakes collaborative digital projects like the New Fascism Syllabus (www.NewFascismSyllabus.com) and the German Studies Collaboratory (www.GermanStudiesCollaboratory.org). Her research has been supported by a variety of grant agencies and institutions including the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council of Canada, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the German Academic Exchange Service, the German Historical Institute, the Humboldt University of Berlin, the Berlin Program of the Free University of Berlin, Sciences Po, and the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l'Homme. She has written for the Washington Post, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, and The Conversation.

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