Holocaust denial and digital “homes”

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For some time now scholars and journalists have been noting the double-edged sword of the digital revolution. While the Internet creates space for online community formation centered on respectful dialogue about politics, society, culture, ethnicity, etc., it also opens space for hate speech, violence, and other ills, providing a digital home for those who might seek to do harm offline.

In terms of Holocaust denial, Facebook hit the headlines about a year ago after CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed why Facebook would not remove posts endorsing Holocaust denial. While Zuckerberg found Holocaust denial personally offensive, it did not feel right for the company to remove Holocaust deniers “if they get things wrong, even multiple times.” Zuckerberg’s view hinged on intentionality—how can Facebook know the intent of those whose posts support Holocaust denial? Scholars, most notably historian Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, questioned (for good reason) Zuckerberg’s claim about intent. Lipstadt stated, “Holocaust denial relies on such a robust set of illogical untruths that it is only possible to be a denier on purpose, contrary to what Zuckerberg says, intentionally.” Deciphering intent is sticky business in many situations, but on Holocaust denial I am in full agreement with Dr. Lipstadt on intentionality. Facebook decided to provide a space, in this case a home of sorts, for the spread of Holocaust denial. Others, like Reddit’s AskHistorians forum, have decided to ban Holocaust denial outright

Let’s take a step back. I have not defined “home.” I won’t actually. But, I will provide ways of thinking about it as it relates to digital spaces and Holocaust denial. We might, for the sake of our discussion, simply consider a website a type of virtual home. Like a home, it is a kind of space where the people who fashioned it reside, at least in a sense; they may not be permanent residents every season of the year, but it is a home of their fashioning for ideas, resources, or whims. I would suggest that the creators of early Holocaust denial websites envisioned themselves as homemakers—providing a virtual space where like-minded people could share resources and, if it had a forum or running commentary, kvetch about those “Jews” who run the media and whatnot. Early Holocaust denial websites were also often connected to “organized Holocaust denial” groups and individuals. Scholar William Allington defines the idea in this fashion: “Organized Holocaust denial resembles a school of political or historical thought, with named and identifiable figures at the center and the creation of an infrastructure behind the movement” (Allington, 37). That is, to spread their ideas, organized Holocaust deniers quickly realized the need to create spaces for hosting materials, discussions, and networking. They—the creators of Holocaust denial websites—operated home-centered revisionist salons and libraries, if you will.

Before the Internet, there were homes for Holocaust deniers, but they were mostly in the form of conferences, print publications, and other media (VHS tapes, recorded speeches, etc.). Conferences promoting Holocaust denial were particularly popular as a home for many Holocaust deniers, but they proved not nearly as popular as Internet homes. Holocaust denial conferences were risky affairs. Attending such a conference required a willingness to be physically seen as a Holocaust denier. In Europe, where a number of Holocaust deniers have lived and operated, openly supporting Holocaust denial could bring a criminal charge due to laws curtailing Holocaust denial. For deniers who wanted to maintain anonymity, whether for personal reasons or fear of prosecution, the Internet proved a revelation and revolution. Likewise, it has become common for European-based Holocaust deniers with websites to host their virtual homes on US servers (Allington, 40). This has made such websites almost untouchable due to American laws on free speech.

Most importantly, much like their pre-Internet organizations and publications, Holocaust deniers used the discourse, structure, and stylistics of the academy to gain the look of legitimacy. In the Internet age, at least in some cases, Holocaust deniers also put fancy frosting on their websites to make their “historical research” appear academically legitimate. (Lately, many denier websites have been left in the dust as website design has improved.) These gilded denier homes became spaces for searching “nomads.” Here, I wish to think of nomad not as a “digital nomad”—the person who works remotely while on the move. Rather, I want to use nomad more as a person who definitely exists somewhere out there in the world, but in the moment is a nomad on the Internet, wandering or searching to find information and resources, usually related to a specific inquiry or interest. Nomads stop in to look for resources, but they are generally on the virtual move, at least at first. They may be looking for a place to set their roots. As it relates to Holocaust deniers specifically, Holocaust deniers as nomads resemble, again per Allington, the definition of casual Holocaust deniers, “providing website clicks, giving donations, and subscribing to their [organizer Holocaust deniers’] publications while keeping their ordinary jobs and keeping their identity largely secret” (Allington, 37). Certainly, a nomad can cross the line and join the community in a more everyday, robustly engaged manner. It is this type of Holocaust denier nomad who most likely plays the role of Holocaust denier troll. The Holocaust denier troll-nomad uses anonymity to roam popular sites like YouTube or Facebook with questions about the facticity of the Holocaust. No doubt, homemakers and nomads are definitely more complicated than the picture I have painted, but I want to broadly show how concepts like home and nomad might be seen differently when viewed in light of Holocaust denial, or other forms of hate speech.

Scholars have countered by creating their own virtual homes to combat Holocaust denial. Nizkor.org, Holocaust Denial on Trial (HDOT), and the United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum, to name a few, provide digital homes for resources on fighting Holocaust denial. Most of these sites are often less interactive on a day-to-day basis than their Holocaust denier counterparts. From my own experience working with HDOT, we could not provide comments sections or forums, namely due to denier nomad-trolls. With the amount of troll emails I have received in the HDOT inbox, I cannot even imagine the kind of policing required of our small staff to include such user interaction. HDOT and other scholarly sites combating denial are often better situated to offer resources than provide a space for online community formation.

The complexities of home and nomad are perhaps best seen in light of the virtual “marketplace,” Google. The Google-as-marketplace analogy eventually breaks down, but I’ll use it anyway. Some of my colleagues noticed quite early that when you typed “Anne Frank” into Google you might get a number Holocaust denier websites on the first page of the search results, often in the first couple results. This was the same for other Holocaust-related terms (Allington, 46). The search engine has improved somewhat, but it still has flaws in directing nomads looking for basic information about the Holocaust to Holocaust denial websites. Google periodically made adjustments to YouTube to warn viewers about offensive content, including Holocaust denial videos, and offer them actual historical information. Major problems persisted, and not just in relation to Holocaust denial, but also genocide denial more broadly, extremist hate speech, and incitement to violence. There are even more changes unfolding as I write, but they are still new and their outcomes are unclear

Every semester in which I teach or TA courses on Holocaust topics, I specifically warn students not to cite certain sites. I include a general list and I explain why: they are Holocaust denier webpages that look like legitimate scholarly webpages. Invariably, several students reference one of the sites on the list, without thinking about it. I take heart in the number of students who heed my warnings, but I fear that many people out in the world will fall prey to recirculating deceptive “questions” about the Holocaust if denier trolls continue unimpeded or Holocaust denial websites have no caveats. I don’t have a definitive program for further policing or algorithmically improving YouTube, Google, or similar digital spaces and/or search engines (aside from Facebook); I leave that to others more qualified. From my own research and work with HDOT, it is plain to me that more funding can be put into educational projects, digital and non-digital, that combat Holocaust denial. I, for one, will continue to train my students to suss out the virtual homes they visit with a critical eye. The more I reiterate the better the outcomes seem to be. I can only hope they take that out into the non-university context with them. That is my hope—to make better nomads, as I have used this word at least, able to recognize the falsities and evils that dwell under fancy frosting.

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Works Cited:

Allington, William. “Holocaust Denial Online: The Rise of Pseudo-Academic Antisemitism on the Early Internet.” Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism. Vol. 1, No. 1 (2017): 33-54.

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