This Wednesday, countries across the world are marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In past years, states and institutions offered hybrid online-offline commemorations of the Nazi attrocities, a practice that has become standard. The coronavirus pandemic, though, has forced museums to close and relegated Holocaust memory, like much else, exclusively to the digital realm – bringing the internet’s role in helping and harming Holocaust remembrance back to the forefront.
“I believe online Holocaust history offers risks alongside opportunities,” explains Prof. Havi Dreifuss, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and the head of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem. “Part of the threat is the ability to distort knowledge in a way that could seem credible as well as its simple publication online. This is definitely a challenge. On the other hand, by the same token, being online enables closer connections between the rich world of knowledge existing about the Holocaust and the wider public – and this is a very big advantage,” she says.
“What was a question of a sensitive balance between online and offline has now become a fight for maintaining a collective memory,” says Dr. Aya Yadlin-Segal, a media researcher in Hadassah Academic College who has studied Holocaust memory discourse online.
Online spaces, she explains, “allow more opportunities to interact with memory as a whole and the memory of the Holocaust in particular.” She notes that research she conducted shows that debates about the Holocaust in Facebook comments recreated much of the public discourse about the Shoah.
However, “the loosely regulated online platforms have also become harbingers of Holocaust denial, antisemitism and memory misrepresentation or distortion,” she says. “But the story is more complex than just hate.”
Prof. Shira Klein, a professor of Jewish history at Chapman University in California, explains that “Barely anyone outside of academia opens a peer-reviewed book or encyclopedia anymore. Holocaust history is overwhelmingly online, and that has democratized the retelling of the past in odd ways.”
Museums are uploading their archives for public use, historical footage is going up on YouTube with ease and people are uploading their own families’ stories onto home-made websites, Klein says. “That means that more people have their story out than ever before, which is exciting.”
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This comes with its own set of challenges, though. Just as personal Holocaust narratives find a home on the internet, so does decontextualized Nazi propaganda. “Without historians there to mediate data to consumers, anyone can interpret anything as they wish,” Klein adds.
She explains that online, “Outright denial is fairly rare. From what I’ve seen, distortion is a lot more common. Distortion comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s innocent errors, repeating something you heard somewhere even if there’s no basis to it. Like the legend that Nazis made soap out of Jews – they didn’t.
“Other times it’s about playing the blame game, like claiming Germans bear all the responsibility for persecution while other nationals – Poles, Croats, Italians, French, you name it – were helpless onlookers.
“Or you might come across a website that lays out the persecution of Jews in fairly correct terms, but subtly massages the data so that you end up with the sense that the Jews had it coming. Of course, there are also the rabidly antisemitic websites which praise the Nazis for annihilating the Jews. These are especially numerous on social media and in the ‘deep web.’”
Commemoration’s place on the internet
The same democratization of Holocaust memory that lends itself to distortion and denial has offered new opportunities for commemoration.
Yadlin-Segal points to a project that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, hosted in 2019. The “Eva Stories” campaign, introduced with the slogan “What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?”, took the form of dozens of videos posted to the platform in which actors played out and read passages from the diary of Eva Heyman, a 13-year-old Hungarian girl deported to her death in Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. It was endorsed by a number of academics and leading figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But she also notes the justified controversy surrounding last year’s Tik Tok trend, in which teenagers donned stage makeup to play concentration camp victims in heaven, or being abused by Nazis. Some supporters said it bolstered Holocaust memory among the younger generation; others slammed it as “trauma porn.”
“Online platforms raise a question we are not often faced with: Who has the right to remember the Holocaust and in what ways?” Yadlin-Segal says. “While criticized, these two projects reveal what many canonic memory agents are slowly realizing – commemoration must find its place on the internet.”
Yad Vashem, she says, serves as one example of an institution that has succeeded in this task. “They have digitized over the last few years large portions of their archives, from the names and biographical information of victims that can now be located on an online catalogue all the way to an interactive map that indicates a deportation database of transports to extinction during the Holocaust,” she says, adding that the Shoah Foundation created their own archive of filmed Holocaust testimonies for online viewing.
“Online engagements and the meanings of providing accessible interactions with collective memories through online spaces can play a crucial role in maintaining a lively conversation about the past,” she adds. “This does not mean that everything that happens online is good. It does mean that much of the conversation that might have been lost now takes shape online where many can take part and engage in meaningful ways.”
Dreifuss explains that “Academic writing about the Holocaust has different relationships with the web. It is exposed by it, though usually only partially and often even in a distorted way.” She adds, “Online discussion might seek bombastic ‘headlines’ while simplifying complex issues, and this can even contradict the manner topics are researched. Thus the limited and general manner of online event has more limitation regarding Holocaust historiography.”
Free speech and disinformation
For years, Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, had defended Holocaust denial as a misguided but legitimate form of expression. He said of Holocaust denial in 2018: “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong.” That approach garnered widespread outcry from scholars and antisemitism watchdogs. In October, Zuckerberg announced a change in policy for Facebook, writing in a post that he now believes banning Holocaust denial “is the right balance.”
The move came after several groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, launched an advertisers boycott against Facebook as part of what they called the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign in June. The ADL has long documented prominent groups of Holocaust deniers active on the platform. This summer, they were joined by the NAACP and other civil rights groups in a boycott of Facebook, in which 1,000 companies, including major corporations, paused advertising on the site for at least one month in protest of its lack of action against hate speech, including Holocaust denial.
The Claims Conference, which coordinates restitution and reparations payments for Holocaust survivors, even organized a campaign called #NoDenyingIt in which Holocaust survivors appealed directly to Zuckerberg via video to take action against Holocaust denial, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported.
After the change in Facebook’s policy, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum addressed the tensions between Holocaust denial and freedom of expression, saying that “Freedom of speech is vital to our democracy, but it does not require any organization to host antisemitic speech that can potentially foment violence.”
The Jewish Telegraph Agency reported that Facebook’s announcement of the new policy did not define what constitutes “content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.” However, the social media giant did tell Bloomberg News that the policy applied only to Holocaust denial, not to denial of other genocides, like the Armenian or Rwandan genocides.
On Wednesday, Facebook announced a new project together with the World Jewish Congress that would see those searching for Holocaust related content on the social media platform reared to a new website called AboutHolocaust.org. Developed together with UNESCO, the site provides what a joint statement described as "an accessible means to provide essential information about the history of the Holocaust and its legacy."
Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said Facebook is "proud to partner with them to help people learn the facts about the Holocaust and hear the stories of those who survived. At a time of rising hate and intolerance, taking time to read and reflect on what happened to Jews and others in Europe is more important than ever.”
It isn’t just Facebook that has struggled with Holocaust disinformation and denial. As Haaretz reported last year, the longest-standing hoax in the history of Wikipedia is an attempt by Polish nationalists to rewrite the Holocaust narrative according to what is termed the “Polocaust narrative.” According to this view, considered more a form of Holocaust distortion than denial, Poles, as well as Jews, were the target of the Nazi extermination efforts.
While Holocaust historiography draws clear distinction between the Nazi perpetrators, the Jewish victims and bystanders like Poles, the Polocaust narrative attempts to undermine that distinction, and cast the Poles as what Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer has described as “equal victims.” This is part of what he terms a wider movement regarding the Holocaust being recast as a “useful history” in the service of a nationalistic agenda.
Accordingly, on Wikipedia, a number of articles emerged over the course of 15 years, claiming that Poles were even gassed to death in a gas chamber in Warsaw. This myth has been described by Prof. Havi Dreifuss, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and the head of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem, and other experts as “fake history.” But these fictions took root throughout the internet, with the help of sources which included those from official Polish state institutions.
Nationalistic Polish historians have prompted aspects of the Polocaust narrative in studies they have published online and even in some cases with the support of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. These appeared not only on Wikipedia, but also in different online forums and groups.
“Widespread distortion and denial took place before this ‘online age.’ Thus the two main problems as I see them are that denial and distortion are much easier to distribute online, while presenting false information as reliable,” explains Prof. Dreyfuss.