Online Antisemitism and Holocaust Distortion on the Rise Globally
Today, April 28th, is Holocaust Rembrance Day, which provides an opportunity to remember and reflect upon past genocides, warning signs, and how hate based on religion, race, gender, and other identifiers is as prevelent as ever to today’s society. Antisemitism is on the rise globally, and we are seeing it expressed in the traditional ways including graffiti, Nazi flags at protests, attacks on synagogues. At the same time, we’re also racing to understand the new ways antisemitism is being expressed online, including the rise in Holocaust denial and distortion.
While Holocaust denial is a serious issue, distortion is much more common and can be more difficult to identify. According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Holocaust distortion can take many forms but universally “erodes understanding of the history of the Holocaust and its legacy.” Holocaust distortion can look like misinformation around crucial facts (like the number of victims, the causes) excusing the events, misplacing blame, presenting the Holocaust as positive or minimizing its impact.
A UNESCO statement about the rise of antisemitism from late last year said, “Holocaust distortion can be found at all levels of society and is far from a fringe phenomenon. Often camouflaged as opinion, distortion is difficult to identify and frequently goes unchallenged. Nowhere is this clearer than online, where distortive memes and posts spread like wildfire, luring users down a rabbit hole of increasingly extremist content. Snarky comments or jokes making fun of the systematic persecution and murder of six million Jews desensitize people to the Holocaust and its legacy, and erode their understanding of established facts. This primes people for more radical points of view.”
The events and tragedy of the Holocaust have even been grossly appropriated over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic with anti-vaxxers wearing yellow stars reading “not vaccinated” or complaints and memes comparing public health measures to Nazi Germany and its collaborators. There are also notable links between anti-mask/anti-vax groups, conspiracy theorists, and nationalist, white supremacist, xenophobic ideologies.
The history of conspiracy theories is inextricably linked to antisemitism. It was common for medieval Europeans to believe Jews poisoned wells, or drank the blood of Christians, the 19th century saw the belief that Jews ran the world or were plotting to establish their power. Despite many advances, conspiracy theories and antisemitism haven’t changed all that much. Today’s conspiracy theories propagated online — Covid-19 vaccines, a secret ring of powerful Satanists who kidnap children — are derivative and either explicitly or subtly antisemitic. Holocaust denial and distortion are also conspiracy theories that posit Jews as manipulative and deceitful in some way.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks incidents of anti-Jewish bias and violence in the United States, recorded more than 2,000 antisemitic events in 2020, the third-highest year on record since the ADL began recording in 1979. Instances of antisemitism online are particularly harmful as due to the speed at which they can spread, the breadth of their audience, and challenges in having such content removed in a timely manner.
The issue is two-fold: online platforms fail to proactively find and remove the content, and when reported by the community, in many instances the platform will fail to address it.
Last year the ADL graded how well platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, and TikTok, address reports from users of antisemitic content, with most receiving a grade of C. The highest grade was given to Twitter with a B-.
In a recent podcast interview with MIGS, Oren Segal, the Vice President of the ADL’s Center on Extremism acknowledged that while fighting misinformation is a challenge, we shouldn’t lower our expectations when the stakes are so high.
It’s always been important to teach media literacy but the advent of the internet has increased the stakes, made media more complicated. In a broader sense, it remains everyone’s responsibility to confront antisemitism, like all forms of bigotry, in all its forms in the real world and the digital one.
Nadia Trudel is a student fellow at MIGS focusing on countering online hate.
Lauren Salim is the project leader for the Canadian Taskforce to Combat Online Antisemitism, a MIGS project funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage.