Historical Narratives: Why Storytelling in History matters

In my personal experience, one of the most compelling aspects of history has always been the storytelling aspect of it. While I have always enjoyed the study of history as a means of understanding the world, it is the stories of the past which have truly captured and retained my interest in history as a subject. This aspect of history, however, is often overlooked when teaching the subject in schools. All too often, history as a school subject is associated with a rote recollection of a series of dates, events and persons with little in the way of a compelling reason to remember these beyond a test or exam. Using storytelling and narrative history, particularly with contemporary resources such as historical podcasts like those of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Daniele Bolelli’s History On Fire series can be a way to remedy this issue.

There is ample scientific evidence to back up claims of storytelling and oral recounting being effective from a learning standpoint. The reason why storytelling is so compelling has its roots in evolutionary psychology. Marina Bianchi, in a 2014 research paper entitled The Magic of Storytelling: How Curiosity and Aesthetic Preferences Work argues that the telling of stories arouses an intensely pleasurable sensation both externally and internally. One of the psychological appeals of storytelling, Bianchi argues, is that it presents otherwise unfamiliar information in a familiar format. For students who may otherwise be unfamiliar with a topic such as World War Two or the Ancient Roman Empire, utilising storytelling and narrative forms of history can be a powerful way of making a connection. This can take multiple forms, such as a history book which utilises a narrative format or even through oral transmission to students.

Two examples of historians (although Dan Carlin humbly eschews this label in favour of the more modest ‘fan of history’ label) who are expert at narration and storytelling are the aforementioned Carlin and Daniele Bolelli. Through their critically acclaimed podcasts Hardcore History and History on Fire, they take historical events and figures and bring them to life through vivid narration and gripping storytelling. Despite their podcasts frequently spanning several hours in length, they have nonetheless both amassed large audiences on the strength of their narration. Although they are often referred to as ‘popularisers’ of history, their works are academically rigorous, with months of research going into each episode. One of the best parts of both Carlin’s and Bolelli’s podcasts is that they often raise pointed questions for the listener. Both podcasts are effective in taking historical subject matter and placing it in a contemporary context. These podcasts, while going into extensive detail on their respective subjects, also contain some conjecture and commentary interwoven into the accounts. This conjecture raises interesting questions, which can be utilised to spark discussion among students.

There are of course drawbacks with utilising these or other podcasts in the teaching of history, as is the case with just about any resource. Carlin’s and Bolelli’s podcasts are quite lengthy, so limited excerpts rather than entire podcast episodes series would likely be the way to go when designing activites around their use. It is also important to note, in the case of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series, he is not a historian by academic background. Though his research is thorough, there are occasionally gaps and errors in his account, which Carlin himself readily admits. As a result I would caution against utilising his podcasts as a main resource to build a unit of work around. His podcasts are still a great supplementary resource however, especially as an engagement tool for students.

With these factors in mind, the Hardcore History and History On Fire podcast series are well worth considering using in a classroom context. They are accessible, engaging and thought-provoking, combining academic rigour with engaging narration and historical perspectives which are nuanced and also provocative at times. Combined with more traditional teaching materials, I firmly believe Dan Carlin’s and Daniele Bolelli’s history podcasts have a place as a teaching resource in any History classroom.

Social Media Hoaxes and Disinformation/Podcast Announcement

The issue of hoaxes and disinformation within news and current affairs, particularly on social media, is an issue I have been exploring for a while now. A large portion of my History Honours thesis which I wrote last year, concerning the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, concerns this topic. Within this thesis, I explored how distorted and falsified information, often starting on social media, would be reported on, legitimised and subsequently presumed to be truthful. Apart from this specific example, however, the issue of disinformation, hoaxes and false information is an important and increasingly prevalent one on social media.

Social media disinformation and hoaxes occur in a variety of ways. One of the most common ways in which this occurs is through viral hoaxes, often on topical or controversial issues. On sites such as Facebook, this often takes the form of a post on a topical issue such as vaccinations, terrorism, climate change, or a geopolitical issue. A large factor for this occurring is the way in which Facebook is set up and how it prioritises certain posts appearing in a newsfeed over others. According to an article from the Washington Post, people who are inclined towards sharing conspiracy theories over Facebook and other forms of social media tend to post much more frequently than other users, despite there being relatively few users who think this way. In addition, these users are often organised and work together closely, helping to push these type of posts across the site, resulting in viral posts. On Facebook for example, a very popular and consistent hoax is about Facebook supposedly asking for a fee to maintain a private profile. Some users feel threatened by this idea, regardless of there not being any evidence of this actually being planned, so create and share posts warning of this coming fee, as a way of comforting or protecting themselves from this perceived threat. This effect of seeking out information and forming posts which fits a predetermined narrative, despite evidence, is known as confirmation bias. Other people, having seen this and also becoming nervous at the prospect of a fee, share the viral post too, despite it being false, which furthers the effect of confirmation bias. Eventually, the hoax has attained such a reach and has been posted so many times that many users simply accept the hoax as being true, due to an echo chamber effect.

For the average user, it can be difficult to determine what is true and what is not. Sites such as Snopes.com help to debunk many of these viral hoaxes and conspiracies, though it cannot keep up with every hoax and false post going around. These examples underscore the need to be careful before sharing a news item or a viral post on social media, to prevent the spread of false or distorted news and information. Take just a few minutes to research and get some background on the topic in question. If possible, find another source which can verify and confirm claims being made

Social media manipulation is not just done by individuals, however. Some governments, such as the Russian government during the Russia-Ukraine war, have employed similar tactics in order to influence and manipulate social media debate of an issue. Throughout this war, the Kremlin has been sponsoring ‘troll houses’, buildings where hundreds of people work around the clock creating blog pieces, writing comments and creating memes which support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The evidence of this can be seen in the comments section of any Facebook, Youtube or other site’s comment section which reports or comments on this conflict, including in this article describing the troll house phenomenon. This deliberate manipulation of information for propaganda purposes in a modern context is often referred to as information warfare. In an upcoming podcast I am working on, I expand on this topic in much more detail.

As I alluded to earlier, the subject of this post is one which I will be discussing in much more detail in a soon to be released debut episode of podcast I am working on. The podcast, which will be co-hosted by myself and Tom Price will examine contemporary political and international issues, as well as exploring various historical topics. Those of you familiar with podcasts such as Foreign Policy’s The Editor’s Roundtable podcast or Dan Carlin’s Common Sense podcast will particularly enjoy this podcast, though the subject matter will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary politics, geopolitics, current affairs and history.