The Opportunity

Social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest make it possible for historians to take part in open conversations about issues of public concern and historical relevance.

Tips for Engaging on Social Media

1.  Use (and understand) existing conversations.

Various social media platforms use hashtags to help people find posts on a topic quickly. Before you start talking, figure out where conversations are happening and how those conversations are going. (Also, if you're new to the social network you're using, spend plenty of time becoming comfortable with the medium. Learn its norms and etiquette—this is very important for reaching people effectively—and observe what highly effective users do.)

Be aware: Hashtagged conversations are not all alike. Some may be dominated by people and groups who will take strong exception to what you post. You may encounter personal abuse, harassment campaigns, and even threats of violence. Just as in any other conversation, you should be sensitive to the existing discussion—both to protect yourself and to contribute in the most persuasive way.

2. Use your skills.

Historians have special contributions to make to these conversations based on their knowledge of what sources exist, their training in how to reason about the past, and their understanding of how various layers of context shape meaning. Put these skills to use.

Don't just issue banal messages and assertions. Post screenshots of primary sources. Link to good work by scholars. Make numbered lists of arguments to turn tweets into an essay, written in real time. Make graphics that illustrate key ideas. Your goal should be to enrich the public conversation, not to repeat talking points.

3. Appeal to evidence, not authority.

Many academics who debate controversial topics are tempted to appeal to their own authority—their own knowledge, intelligence, training, and qualification—against what they see as amateur ignorance. Giving in to this impulse may be a grave mistake. 

Why is that? Conspiracy theorists and other people who see themselves as questioning academic orthodoxy thrive on elite hostility. By showing arrogance or condescension, you will enhance their self-confidence and strengthen their resolve.

4. Cut through noise with humor and pith.

A single succinct, attention-grabbing sentence or image is worth more on social media than pages of discussion. Humor tends to travel farther than other kinds of writing.

5. Take security precautions beforehand.

Be aware that engaging on a controversial topic, especially using a busy hashtag, may result in unexpected forms of attention.

Before weighing in on a controversial topic, review your social media account and your other online information to make sure you are comfortable with the level of privacy you will have. Make sure you have strong passwords and other safety features enabled on all your accounts. If you are posting under your real name or with real photographs, take special care to make sure your account does not disclose personal information you would not want a potentially abusive critic to have.

Remember, it's not only your Twitter or Facebook account you need to consider. A lot of personal information is available online to anyone who looks for it. You may need to make sure that a Google search of your name does not disclose sensitive information like your home address, telephone number, or the identities of your family members.

6. Know when to disengage.

You are unlikely to change any individual's mind in the heat of an argument. You should engage particular people in conversation only to the extent that they shown signs of being interested in reasoned discourse. (This is not the same thing as agreeing with you.) And when you've said what you have to say, move on—don't waste time repeating yourself.

Often, knowing whether to respond to someone who challenges you on social media is a matter of taking your own emotional temperature. Are you about to lash out in anger or frustration? Don't. When somebody is too successful at pushing your emotional buttons, it's time to ignore them. As the saying goes, "Don't feed the trolls."

Above all, do not engage in insults, and do not respond to them. Be the most reasonable person in the room.