History in the public interest from the Lepage Center at Villanova University
State Department sponsors trip to Lithuania
Last month, Lepage Center director Jason Steinhauer traveled to Lithuania and met with U.S. officials, Lithuanian officials, scholars and students as part of a trip sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Invited by the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius under the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, Steinhauer spoke at seven Lithuanian universities and institutions about whether history communication can play a role in combating fake news and fake history.
Russian influence
Lithuania, like other nations in Europe and the U.S., is in the cross-hairs of a Russian information campaign aimed at influencing public opinion. Lithuanian military officials estimate the Russian government spends more than $900 million annually on state-sponsored media.

“The day has come when we all acknowledge that words, cameras, photographs, the internet and information in general have become another branch of weapon, another branch of the Armed Forces.”  –Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu

RT is the biggest Russian international media outlet. It has 22 satellites; over 230 broadcast operators; attracts 644 million viewers in more than 100 countries; is available in almost 3 million hotel rooms and broadcasts in English, Arabic, Spanish, German, French and Russian. RT has the most YouTube videos of any news agency on the planet. (source: Lithuanian Armed Forces)  

Sputnik is a new Russian state-funded venture. It includes web, news wire and social media presences. It operates in 30 languages, in 130 cities and broadcasts over 800 hours of radio programming per day. (source: Lithuanian Armed Forces)
The past as a weapon
History is one of Russian media's primary subjects. Russian media use the past to argue for the return of Lithuania to Russian control. One argument states:  

"Lithuania must give its land back to Belorussia and Russia, because the blood of Soviet soldiers was spilled to win it from the Germans in World War II."    

The past is also used to question the intentions of NATO allies (Lithuania is a NATO member). German soldiers are stationed in Lithuania as part of NATO security operations. Russians use different narratives about the German past to sew doubt about German intentions.
Map of Lithuania. The country is bordered by Belarus to the east and the Russian province of Kaliningrad to the west.
Source: CIA World Factbook
A feeling of unease
Many Lithuanians are nervous about Russian influence. They are nervous about the build up of Russian military forces near the Baltics and of Russian jets scrambling above the Baltic Sea.

They are particularly nervous after watching what occurred in Crimea in 2014. Will Russian propaganda set the stage for an invasion? Will NATO allies come to Lithuania's aid? At stake is the very independence Lithuanians fought hard to achieve.
What to do
Lepage Center director Jason Steinhauer met to discuss these issues with U.S. Embassy personnel, Lithuanian officials, scholars and students. If ideas about the past are weaponized in this manner, what can be done to counteract them? This was the subject of the conversations.
An issue for America, too

What is true in Lithuania is true, too, in the U.S. Russian disinformation is assessed by U.S. intelligence officials to have played a role in the 2016 Presidential election, with much of it circulated and amplified via the Web and social media.

The Web and social media are saturated with content, and it can be hard to distinguish fact from propaganda. EVERY MINUTE OF EACH DAY: Facebook users share more than 674,000 pieces of content. Twitter users send more than 347,000 tweets. 571 new websites are created. YouTube users share 400 hours of new video. (source: Domo, Data Never Sleeps)

How do citizens discern what is trustworthy?

In 2016, the Stanford History Education Group released an 18-month study of more than 7,000 American students. They found the ability of students to reason about information on the Internet was “bleak.”  

Students could not differentiate a story by a journalist from a story by an advertiser. On the whole students did not take the time to investigate whether websites or social media accounts had biases or hidden agendas.  

A pressing question of our era is how do citizens decipher good information from bad, honest scholarship from propaganda, particularly on the Web? What tools or skills are needed to develop media and information literacy?

Lepage Center director Jason Steinhauer meets with Lithuanian officials in Vilnius, May 2017
History in new forms

Part of the discussion in Lithuania centered upon ensuring that historical scholarship reaches a wider audience. Many citizens receive historical information from the Web, social media and television. Fewer read academic monographs or academic journal articles.  

Having more historical scholarship readily available on the Web can be part of the solution. This may mean a commitment to open access; a greater emphasis on promoting scholarship through social media channels; and the creation of scholarship in new formats such as viral videos, GIFs, memes, podcasts and blogs. Historians with these skills can potentially have an enormous impact on societal understandings of the past.

A call for historical literacy
Also discussed was a renewed commitment to instilling historical literacy in citizens. How can students and citizens learn to recognize honest scholarship? How can the process of doing historical research—examining primary sources, source criticism, formulating arguments based on evidence, and situating events within context—be helpful in developing media literacy skills?
We will host an event this fall
The Lepage Center will host an event this fall that tackles these pressing issues. 

We will put "fake news" into a historical perspective and examine how we have come to know what we know, the role of the media, and the role of history education.

How has our landscape of information evolved and what are the consequences for historical understanding?

Please mark your calendars for mid-September (date, time, and speakers to be announced).
Fulfilling our mission
The mission of the Lepage Center is to bring history to bear on contemporary global affairs, and to engage with citizens, elected officials and societal leaders to help make a better world. We are proud to have worked with the U.S. Department of State on this initiative and will continue to work on similar efforts to pursue history in the public interest.
Jason Steinhauer with students and faculty at the Institute for Political Science and International Relations in Vilnius, May 2017
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