The Lessons of History and Social Media

By Sara J. Bloomfield

Image courtesy of Geralt via Wikimedia Commons

An important new study on Holocaust denial and social media was recently released by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) based in London. It happened to come on the heels of a major initiative by the Claims Conference to confront online denial through the first Holocaust survivor-driven digital campaign — #NoDenyingIt.

The ISD study’s summary states: “Holocaust denial has long been one of the most insidious conspiracy theories targeting Jewish communities, with its extremist proponents drawn from across the political spectrum, from extreme right-wing to hard left to Islamist. Research has shown that digital platforms have only served to amplify and mainstream this warped strain of thinking in recent years.” The study has three key findings: 1) “Holocaust denial content is readily available across Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter;” 2) “Holocaust denial content is actively recommended through Facebook’s algorithms;” and 3) “shifts in a platform’s terms of service are effective at limiting the spread of Holocaust denial content.” The report notes YouTube was able to reduce Holocaust denial content by modifying its terms of service.

To carry out that responsibility, they — and all of us — need a better understanding of the past. It’s a warning that complacency is not an option.

Antisemitism has been around for two thousand years, is highly resilient, and is easily adaptable to changing circumstances. Holocaust denial is only one of the latest manifestations of antisemitism, and social media is only the most recent — but also perhaps the most consequential — vehicle for spreading it.

Antisemitism appeared in Europe long before the Middle Ages, but its consequences and lessons throughout history are timely. Rapid change or major events like pandemics led to searches for simple and convenient answers to complex questions, and Jews are thus made scapegoats time and again. Conspiracy theories about alleged Jewish power — Jews worldwide working together to bring the plague, control the economy, invent the Holocaust — were, and continue to be, excellent fodder for the constant needs of the modern world of mass communications.

From the invention of movable type in the 15th century to the mass communications of the late 19th and 20th centuries, information (and disinformation) have helped bring about massive societal changes — reforms and social and economic advancements as well as wars, revolutions, and mass atrocities. The past is a cautionary tale that technological progress is not always moral progress. The mix of human fears and hatreds with mass communications would become a potentially toxic brew with the birth of modern propaganda in connection with new technologies around World War I.

One veteran of that war and a keen observer of the role of propaganda was Adolf Hitler. In Mein Kampf, published in 1925, he demonstrated his interest in human nature: “The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses and finding the psychologically correct way of gaining the broad masses’ attention and hearts.” His insights help explain why his first position in the Nazi Party was as its director of propaganda. Unlike other German politicians in the democratic Weimar Republic, Hitler was eager to use the latest technologies — sound amplification, airplanes, film, early versions of TV, and most crucially radio, perhaps the smartphone of its day — to advance his message.

Another sentence from Mein Kampf also resonates today: “Propaganda is a terrible weapon in the hands of an expert.” And now, we live in a world in which social media allows everyone to be an expert.

Free speech is vital to a democracy, and one hopes that in the marketplace of ideas “counter-speech” will win out. But history is also a reminder that the unthinkable is possible and of the dangers of wishful thinking and unintended consequences. It often feels like the rapidity of technological change and impact have outstripped our ability to carefully assess and anticipate its consequences. With antisemitism and racism ongoing problems, all the creativity and innovation that built social media needs to be harnessed to address these issues. And it will require more than talented “techies.” Historians and other experts in the humanities — the study of what it means to be human — need to be part of this urgent endeavor.

Mark Twain is alleged to have said that “A lie is halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.” Regardless of the source, the observation pre-dates the rise of social media by a century. The world always changes, but human nature never does.

Sara J. Bloomfield is director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org

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