Why Did the Israeli Behind 'Yolocaust' Plaster Racist Tweets All Over Twitter's Offices

Racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic tweets sprayed on a Hamburg street asks Twitter why hate speech is rarely removed from the often venomous platform

Berlin-based Israeli artist Shahak Shapira posing in front of his latest project in Hamburg, Germany.
Shahak Shapira

On the night of August 4, a terrible thing happened to a street in Hamburg, Germany. Passersby awoke the next morning to find a large section of the street, located in front of the country’s Twitter offices, covered with racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs from “Niggers Are a Plague on Our Society” to “Judenschwein” (Jewish pigs) to “Let’s gas some Jews together” to “Gays to Auschwitz.”

Next to the graffiti, however, was a clue pointing to the fact that the offensive sight wasn’t the work of neo-Nazis or another white supremacist organization, but rather part of a campaign by a provocative Israeli-German artist bent on exposing intolerable hate speech on the Internet and Twitter’s inaction against it.

The clue was a sentence that was spray painted in a scrawl next to the neatly printed stenciled slurs: "Hey Twitter, why don’t you delete this stuff? XOXO, SS"

The initials “SS” stood for Shahak Shapira, the artist-satirist-author who grabbed international attention last January with his provacative Yolocaust project

That project took aim at what Shahak called “our commemorative culture, by combining selfies from The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin with footage from Nazi extermination camps.”

The “Yolocaust” site - taken down after it was viewed by over 2.5 million people - featured twelve actual colorful selfies that young people took at the Berlin Holocaust memorial that Shapira found on Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grinder, and included captions like “Jumping on dead Jews @Holocaust Memorial.” When viewers moved their computer’s mouse over the photos they transformed - becoming graphic black and white photographs of the extermination camps in the background.

It offered the people in the photos the opportunity to write Shapira, tell him that their selfies had been removed from social media if they "suddenly regret having uploaded it to the internet," and ask that he, too take their photographs down. Ultimately, all of them did. 

From www.yolocaust.de

This time, Shapira isn’t only trying to inspire change in individuals - but in a billion-dollar company. In what Shapira is called the #HeyTwitter project, he is trying to encourage the social media platform to crack down on those using it to spread hate and racist messages.

By bringing the slurs on Twitter into the “real world,” he hopes to shine a new light on how offensive and unacceptable they are. Indeed - within a few hours of the appearance of the hate-filled graffiti in Hamburg, it was quickly erased or made illegible by neighbors and activists. This action helped to make Shapira’s point: that while removing on the street was quick and easy, deleting hate on Twitter is more challenging.

In a YouTube video illustrating his project, Shapira reports that in the past six months, he has reported 450 comments to Twitter and Facebook. The comments he said he reported weren’t “just plain insults or jokes” but “serious threats of violence.”  

He said that of the comments he reported to Facebook, 80 percent were removed over the course of 1-3 days.

By contrast, if the 300 complaints he made to Twitter, he said, “I received only 9 answers over the past six months, each of them stating there was no violation of Twitter’s rules.”

“I thought, OK, if Twitter forces me to see those things, then they’ll have to see them, too.”

He made 30 of the tweets the company had not removed into stencils, and brought them to the company’s offices in Hamburg to create his overnight graffiti project to force employees to “look at the beautiful Tweets their company loves to ignore so much.”

Shapira’s video shows how locals reacted to the graffiti, that police on the scene did nothing about them, and noted that initially, the only slurs were cleaned away were those that were in the entranceway to the office building that housed Twitter on its property. The rest - on the public sidewalk and street - remained.

That “fits well with Twitter’s policy of cleaning in front of their own door and leaving the rest to be someone else’s problem.” 

Twitter management could not be reached for comment.