Hashtags and Sea Lions – Using Social Media to Break Down Pseudoarchaeology

Pic: I’ve had my blog for a little under 2 years and in that time I’ve had 16,278 visitors from countries all around the world (with the majority of views (6479) having come from Canada). Don’t doubt the reach of social and digital media!

Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to be a guest on the Women in Archaeology podcast. Emily, Kirsten, Serra, and I had a lot of fun discussing one of my favourite topics – pseudoarchaeology! As a brief recap, or in case you’re new to my blog: I’ve been interested in pseudoarchaeology for a while and have recently decided to start pursuing more of it. And by pursuing I’m referring to discussions breaking down pseudoarchaeological theories and discussing their harmful nature. I’ve written a few pieces so far, which you can find here, here, and here.

One of the topics we discussed quite a bit was archaeological communication. When it comes to pseudoarchaeology, archaeologists need to be at least willing to try to speak out against it when we see it. When archaeologists are unwilling to do so they’re simply adding fuel to the fire. To be clear, I’m referring here to those who are actively refusing to condemn misappropriation of archaeology. For example, in a recent interview regarding the ignorance behind CBC’s Solutrean Hypothesis documentary, archaeologist Dennis Bradley (one of the theory’s proponents) stated that the racist appropriation of the theory was “not my issue” and that “We can’t stop doing science because somebody might misappropriate something.” In other words, Bradley knows full well that his words are being used in harmful, racist narratives but his refusal to engage with (speak against) that in part allows this theory to continue its destructive path.

It can be difficult to find opportunities to engage with the public. Public talks and/or conferences aren’t physically or financially accessible to everyone. But if our goal is to be more communicative regarding pseudoarchaeology, we need to look into alternative ways of doing so. Cue the power of social and digital media. In 2017 approximately 2.46 billion people worldwide used some form of social media, with that number expected to reach over 3 billion by 2021. The most popular social media platforms are Facebook (which I’m lumping Facebook Messenger into), Instagram, and Twitter, with a combined total of 439.63 million monthly users. According to a report from 2017 that surveyed just shy of 79,000 people, there’s quite a variety of uses for social media, from keeping up with friends and family to voicing opinions to staying up-to-date with news and current events.

I’ve discussed in the past the potential that social and digital media has for archaeology. It opens up doors for archaeologists to communicate and network with other archaeologists. It can also be a powerful tool for our engagement with the public. Looking at the ways social media is used, I can see three groups of users that archaeologists are likely to encounter online when it comes to pseudoarchaeology. Approximately 41% of users (just over 180 million) turn to social media for news and current events, 37% (just over 162 million) look for entertaining content, and 30% (132 million) share their opinions.

Arch use of SM
The uses of social media from the 2017 report I referenced earlier, modified to highlight three groups of users archaeologists are likely to encounter online with regards to pseudoarchaeology

Initial online public exposure to pseudoarchaeology tends to come through news stories (i.e. tabloid news publications talking about aliens or even legitimate news sites responding to buzzworthy claims), or by entertainment-specific social media accounts (i.e. the Twitter page for the History Channel). Personal opinions usually accompany the spread of pseudoarchaeological theories, typically as responses to a pseudoarchaeological theory or as a pseudoarchaeological response to a legitimate piece of information. Knowing this, there are several ways archaeologists can use social and digital media towards debunking pseudoarchaeology.

  1. Pay attention to breaking news stories involving archaeologyNew sources (whether a newspaper, news channel, popular magazines, etc.) love splashy headlines. By following news feeds through social media, as archaeology news is released archaeologists have an opportunity to witness the “birth” of pseudoarchaeology. Not only through seeing how a headline might offer the opportunity for misinterpretation, but also through the comments other readers might leave below the news story. This gives us an opportunity to engage with the public from the very beginning. We can read the comments, see how the information is being interpreted, what opinions are being offered (this is a good place to find many of those 30% of users who share their opinions on social media), and begin offering our knowledge to hopefully help prevent potentially damaging theories from taking hold before it’s too late. David Anderson offers a great example of the need for “constant vigilance” in seeing pseudoarchaeological claims arise and engaging with them.  Twitter example 5

    Twitter example 6
    An example of witnessing the “birth” of a pseudoarchaeological theory – Hakai Magazine published an article describing a new study by a group of Greek scholars who argued, by using Plutarch’s texts, that ancient Greeks had the knowledge and capability to reach Canada by boat. The potential to reach Canada, not that they did reach Canada. By the next day, Tweets had been shared like these saying that the ancient Greeks did, in fact, sail to Canada.  Keeping our eyes on news and magazine sites gives us a chance to engage with comments like these before they spread too much.
  2. Use hashtags. Hashtags are a useful way to connect
    Twitter Example 11
    An example of what you’ll find searching #AncientAliens

    people. How? By putting all the comments sharing a hashtag into one spot. For example, if I want to know what people are saying about archaeology, I can search “#archaeology” on whatever social media platform I’m on and it will bring up ALL the comments in which that hashtag has been included. We can use hashtags we know are typically linked to pseudoarchaeology to find out what theories are being spread online. Hashtags like #AncientAliens, #LostCivilizations, #AmericaUnearthed will connect you with two groups of social media users – those who look for entertaining content (i.e. those who are watching shows like Ancient Aliens, America Unearthed, etc.) and those who offer their opinions online. Not only can we use these hashtags to see what’s being said/thought, we can also use them to link our own debunking comments to this group of social media users. For example, see what David Anderson did (and regularly does) with hashtags on Twitter. Now when anyone searches “AncientAliens” or “LostCivilizations”, they’ll see his comments.

  3. Engage with comments. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that this can be a daunting task. When you encounter a “true believer” online, trying to engage in a civil, informative conversation can be frustrating. Especially if you’re a woman. Often these online engagements turn into “sea-lioning”. Sea-lioning, if you’re unfamiliar, is a term coined from this comic, in which constant (and often repeated questions) and demands for explanation and proof are thrown at the archaeologist (for this example) by the the pseudoarchaeology believer. The purpose isn’t to actually learn, but rather to frustrate and wear down the archaeologist until they give up and the believer can claim a “win”. Despite the risks, engagement with comments is important. It’s an opportunity to share knowledge and proper research directly with those believing in pseudoarchaeology. Whether or not they choose to educate themselves and change their mind is entirely up to them, but at the very least you’ve given them the tools to do so. Not only that, but if others see your engagement in a public online forum, you’ve also now shared that information with a wider audience. Take a look at this wonderful Twitter example from Jens Notroff on how to respectfully engage with a commentator.

    My Twitter thread
    Part of a Twitter thread I recently wrote about identifying pseudorachaeology
  4. Write a blog post. Social media is great for short, to-the-point interactions. A tweet, for example, can only hold 280 characters. Yes, you can string multiple tweets together into a thread (here’s an example I wrote out recently), but the best way for disseminating a large amount of information would be a blog post. Just like the one you’re reading right now. Blog posts can act as good stand-ins for archaeological research. They’re open to the public and are often written in a more general manner (less jargon). You can include as many references as you want, including using hyper-links to provide a direct route to the additional information you want to share. There are some great blogs out there specifically addressing pseudoarchaeology (i.e. ArchyFantasies, Archaeological Oddities, Tepe Telegrams post on the pseudoarchaeological theories plaguing Göbekli Tepe). If you don’t have your own blog but you really want to write out a post, look for blogs offering the opportunities to do so or approach the blog you feel might be the best fit and ask to work together on a post!
  5. Look for opportunities to be involved with podcasts. Podcasts are another wonderful venue for discussing pseudoarchaeology. They’re almost like a verbal version of a blog. ArchyFantasies is a fantastic podcast about pseudoarchaeology. Many different archaeologists and experts have been invited onto the podcast to discuss specific sites and/or theories as well as more general conversations about pseudoarchaeology as a whole. Like a blog post, podcasts are another venue in which archaeological research is made available to the general public. If you’re interested in being involved with a podcast, keep your eyes open for calls looking for participants. Also, don’t be afraid to make your interests known! Put it out there that you would like to participate in a podcast episode, or send a message to a podcast with an episode idea.

If part of the problem with pseudoarchaeology is that it arises through a lack of communication, than understanding how social media is used in perpetuating these harmful ideas can offer archaeologists a powerful and proactive method of public engagement and communication. Social media offers accessibility well beyond the number of people who may physically be able to come to a conference/public talk or access archaeological research articles. Archaeologists need to be willing to speak up and against pseudoarchaeology or risk becoming a greater part of the problem, and social media is a tool with which we can do that.

You can hear me talk about pseudoarchaeology as a guest on the Women in Archaeology Podcast!

Suggested Readings

Richardson, L-J. (2014). Understanding Archaeological Authority in a Digital Context, Internet Archaeology 38.

Why people believe in conspiracy theories – and how to change their minds

Data & Society – Media Manipulation Initiative

Clayton, C. 2017. I Was a Small Time Disinformation Troll. Medium.

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