With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Good News and the Bad News about (Mis)Information – Historians Included

Scared of needles? Maybe you don’t need to be.

At least that’s one thought I take away from a few items in the news lately — that we’re not as vulnerable to outside stimuli as we might fear.

The needle in question here is a theoretical one: the hypodermic needle model of opinion change. That’s the idea, born decades ago, that the way to understand the effect of media is to think of it as a direct injection of information, straight into your brain. Your reaction to this information will likely be rapid, predictable, and potent — just as much as a shot of adrenaline to the heart. You learn something terrible about a political candidate; this information injection makes you decide, instantly, not to vote for him.

Now, the hypodermic needle model exists mostly for scholars to make fun of it. No one ever took it completely seriously; it’s a straw man of sorts. But rather than a coherent theory, think of it as one end of a spectrum of views on how media influences us all. Some people think a few carefully chosen messages can change your behavior easily and meaningfully. Others think it’s a lot harder than that — that we’re pretty adept as shrugging off new facts, for better and for worse.


Last week, a new book edited by Princeton’s Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer came out called Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past. It features some top-notch historians (Carol Anderson! Eric Rauchway! Lawrence Glickman! Elizabeth Hinton! Daniel Immerwahr! my old college history prof, Glenda Gilmore!) each writing chapters on a major American myth that their work has helped puncture. I suspect everyone involved would describe themselves as a political liberal, though it’s no den of Marxists; nearly all of the “myths” at hand here are associated more with the right than the left.

I’m looking forward to reading it (as you might imagine from someone who goes all fanboy at a list of middle-aged historians). But I was also struck by this critique of Myth America that ran yesterday in Slate. It’s by Paul M. Renfro (Florida State) and Matthew E. Stanley (Arkansas), and they argue the book’s authors miss the point.


Personally, I think “should fix American political culture” is probably too big of a goal to set for a book. And calling QAnon, birtherism, and the rest “easily disproven conspiracy theories” demands the question: Easy to disprove to who? (QAnon fans don’t seem particularly easy to sway.)

But Renfro and Stanley are absolutely correct to complicate Myth America‘s mental model. Do people believe the 2020 election was stolen because they don’t have access to the high-quality information that would tell them it wasn’t? (They haven’t found the right hypodermic needle, in other words.) Or did the Big Lie develop precisely because it supports people’s existing belief systems? These mythologies — whether fringe or mainstream — are more often the result of political change than the cause of it.

Read entire article at Nieman Lab