History professor’s Twitter account goes viral—again

Peter Shulman CWRULast Monday, Peter Shulman sat in his Mather House office considering the present-day refugee situation in Syria.

Hadn’t the world, he thought—and, more specifically, the U.S.—been here before?

So the associate professor of history began scouring digitized newspaper archives, and soon found a public opinion poll showing anti-refugee stances against Jewish people in the 1930s, based on a survey of U.S. college students.

Then he took the finding to Twitter. As the creator of @HistOpinion, Shulman regularly tweets public opinion polls conducted throughout history, tying them to current events whenever possible.

His first tweet on the subject:

US Dec 12 ’38: College students: Should the US offer haven in this country for Jewish refugees from Central Europe?

pie chart showing result of public opinion poll from 1938, with 68.8 percent of respondents saying “no” and 31.2 percent saying “yes”

Within hours, the tweet began its viral ascent.

Seeing its success, Shulman “hurried off” to Kelvin Smith Library in search of more powerful polling results.

He found them:

US Jul ’38: What’s your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian & other political refugees to come into the US?

bar chart showing result of public opinion poll from 1938, with 67.4 percent of respondents saying “with conditions as they are, we should try to keep them out,” 18.2 percent saying “we should allow them to come but not raise our immigration quotas,” 4.9 percent saying “we should encourage them to come even if we have to raise our immigration quotas” and 9.5 percent saying they don’t know

US Jan 20 ’39: Should the US government permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany?

bar chart showing result of public opinion poll from 1939, with 30 percent of respondents saying “yes,” 61 percent saying “no” and 9 percent saying “no opinion”

US Apr ’39: If in Congress, would you support a bill to open US to larger number of European refugees? By Religion.

bar chart showing result of public opinion poll. “Yes, open doors” responses: Protestant, 6.3%; Catholic, 8.3%; Jewish, 69.8%. “No” responses: Protestant, 85.3%; Catholic, 84.0%; Jewish, 25.8%. “Don’t know” responses: Protestant, 8.4%; Catholic, 7.7%; Jewish, 4.4%.

Those four tweets combined have been retweeted more than 12,000 times. The tweet on Jewish children refugees alone garnered 4,700 retweets. And he’s gained more than 11,000 followers—for a total of some 17,700—in the past eight days.

Media coverage from The Washington Post sparked retweets—and more media coverage. In the past week, Shulman’s been featured in The New York Times, Time, The Associated Press, Mashable, CTV (Canada) and hundreds of other outlets. He’s written a commentary for Fortune, the publication from which some of the early poll results were taken. Shulman’s wife even heard New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on TV talking about the polling.

Shulman’s comparison of Jews during the Holocaust with Syrians today struck an emotional chord for many, he said, because “we all know how that tragic history turned out.”

Others—including media outlets, bloggers and general Internet commenters—viewed it as an inaccurate and unfair association; in-depth writing opposing Shulman’s post continued.

“I agree the comparisons are not perfect—no historical comparisons are,” Shulman noted. “But the U.S. has a long history of fearing immigrants and refugees in particular. We have a long history of incendiary rhetoric that we belatedly realize didn’t match reality or actual risk. We don’t have to let people suffer before we realize this again.”

His goal in sharing the public polling results, he said, is to—at the very least—make people realize “that we have been here before.”

Shulman’s reaction to the viral tweets has been, in a word, “disbelief.”

Yet it’s not the first time Shulman and @HistOpinion have been the source of overnight fame. In January 2014, Slate featured an article praising the captivating account. In one week, his follower count grew from 128 to 3,835—a nearly 3,000 percent increase. (Read what he told the daily then about his social media success.)

When Shulman started the account in October 2013, he committed to posting public opinion polls two or three times a day. But earlier this year, as he was finishing his book, Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America, as well as teaching and starting new projects, he realized he couldn’t devote the time to finding the polls, creating the charts and tweeting the results multiple times a day. Instead, he decided to take a break and periodically use the account when a timely current event came up—like the Syrian refugee crisis.

But after his influx of followers, Shulman said he feels pressure to recommit to his regular posts, “which is a problem because I’m still busy with all the things that kept me from tweeting frequently this past year,” he said. Moving forward, he hopes to tweet about once a week, with plans for upcoming posts on Thanksgiving, Japanese-Americans during World War II and even the early Internet age.

“There really are a lot of great polls left to tweet,” he noted. “That said, I don’t want to only try to send out shocking polls like the refugees ones. There is value in learning about more mundane historical opinions, too.”