Like a lithe cat, history professor Kevin Kruse carefully eyes his prey before pouncing. Only Kruse’s prey is ahistorical facts and his territory is Twitter.
Rapper Kanye West was one of Kruse’s recent targets.
After a hiatus from Twitter, Kanye West stirred up controversy almost immediately by espousing support for Donald Trump. Met with backlash, West argued the Republican party was the party that freed the slaves, while the Democratic party was the party of slave owners. But according to historians, the parties’ current views on race and civil rights have changed significantly since the Emancipation Proclamation. West, however, implied the parties are the same ones that existed at the time of the Civil War.
Although West’s statements referenced historical fact, to many users, his tweets ranged from overly simplifying the two parties’ histories to being downright false.
Kruse promptly took to Twitter and replied to the rapper, ultimately creating a 40-tweet-long twentieth-century lesson on exactly how and why the two parties changed their stances on civil rights.
“If somebody with that kind of platform, with that kind of attention, is out there saying things that just don’t fit with historical record, then I’ll intervene,” Kruse said.
Professors at the University often use social media, and Twitter specifically, for a variety of unique purposes and aims. Kruse is among a number of professors and academics being referred to as #twitterhistorians. Kruse said his goal is to respond immediately to false representations of history and ensure that fact prevails over fiction.
According to Kruse, West is far from the only person on Twitter pushing over-simplified narratives.
Regarding the tweets in question, Kruse claims West is a part of recent pushback against the idea that the Republican and Democratic parties changed their ideas on race since the civil war.
“This is a basic thread of American political history,” Kruse said. “There’s been a concerted effort on a part of some partisans on the right to deny this for some reason.”
For all of his tweets, Kruse said that he never starts out planning what he’ll share on social media. He said he sees his role as purely reactive. He just keeps an eye out for claims put forward by prominent figures and responds accordingly.
Kruse emphasized that he is somewhat selective in choosing who to react or respond to. He said he has no intention of picking on random Twitter users. Instead, he’s more likely to respond to someone with a substantial following who advances an ahistorical narrative.
“As historians we could spend all day going through Twitter correcting things that are wrong,” Kruse said. “I let a lot of pitches go by before I swing.”
While social media platforms might seem like unorthodox places for academic work, Kruse said the immediacy and ubiquity of Twitter today provide a place where scholars can and should speak out for the sake of the truth and the culture around them.
“In general I think we have an obligation to engage,” Kruse said. “I feel like it’s a service we have to provide. I think there’s a hunger for the expertise and I feel that if we’re not out there providing that, they will go to sources who don’t have expertise, but an agenda.”