WASHINGTON, D.C. (RNS)—In December 2018, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, gained more than 120,000 Twitter followers in about five days, memorial officials reported. The growth came not from paid advertising or any concerted campaign. It was motivated by Twitter users rushing to support the memorial against a flurry of anti-Semitic tweets.
Three months later, the account is nearing 300,000 followers.
As anti-Semitism continues to increase on social media, Holocaust memorials and museums dedicated to chronicling the genocide of World War II are stepping up to help preserve the truth and create a community. The online world is coming to their aid.
“The information (people) can find is sometimes problematic,” said Paweł Sawicki, who has worked in the Auschwitz Memorial’s press office for 11 years. “Sometimes they could find a site that’s not factually correct. They could be exposed to Holocaust denial and different manipulations.”
Holocaust deniers were early adopters of online platforms and social media, and they have expanded their activity as the world came online. In January 2018, the use of anti-Semitic symbols on Twitter and blogs had increased 30 percent over the same period two years earlier, the World Jewish Congress found. Holocaust denial had doubled. The previous year, the Anti-Defamation League found 81,400 tweets with anti-Semitic sentiment each week on average.
There is a healthy debate about how much the social media platforms are responsible for policing hate speech. Reddit has banned Holocaust deniers on its AskHistorians forum and “quarantined” groups that attract anti-Semites by warning users before entering the page of the offensive views they contain.
But last summer, Mark Zuckerberg got into hot water when, during an interview with Kara Swisher on Recode, he appeared to defend the right of Holocaust deniers to post on Facebook.
“I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong,” Zuckerberg told Swisher. “It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.”
Creating a ‘virtual community of remembrance’
Holocaust museums and memorials around the world say they can’t wait for the platforms to take action. Mostly they try to combat anti-Semitism by tirelessly working to create a “virtual community of remembrance,” Sawicki said.
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The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has a social media team dedicated to running its extensive menu of Facebook and Twitter accounts, including the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide page, “Ask a Curator” on Instagram and its Facebook Live series.
The museum’s 2018 “AskWhy” campaign, which answers difficult questions raised by Holocaust history, increased its Facebook following by more than 200 percent and more than 50 percent on Instagram, said Andrew Hollinger, the museum’s communications director.
The technology-fueled rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, Hollinger said, makes it important for the museum to provide accurate information on social media.
“Social media has given the museum an incredible opportunity to reach and engage new audiences in new ways,” Hollinger said. “Unfortunately, those who espouse hate and deny the Holocaust have that same opportunity.”
The Auschwitz Memorial first began noticing negative posts around 2009, Sawicki said, which his office hoped its Facebook page would counter by becoming a resource for factual information. At the same time, some worried that people would feel a Facebook page would trivialize the Holocaust. The press team had every intention of pulling the project if things didn’t go well.
Seeking to educate
Today, Sawicki runs a Facebook page with more than 270,000 followers, a Twitter account with more than 296,000 and an Instagram with more than 50,000—all while working as press liaison for journalists and documentary filmmakers, planning events and giving tours (including one to Katy Perry, he noted).
“You can see what we’re doing is important to a number of people,” he said. “The responsibility that comes with that is immense.”
Sawicki does not have a strategic social media plan or even have a target audience in mind. Instead, he said, the traffic to his feeds grows by word of mouth, or tweet. He got a boost when the American comedian Kathy Griffin linked her more than 2 million followers to the Auschwitz Memorial account.
The Auschwitz Memorial never pays for ads or followers on social media, which Sawicki regards as disrespectful.
Instead, he’s just going to keep doing what he’s doing—educating people about the memorial and the Holocaust.
“We understand there are millions of people who will never be able to come to the memorial,” Sawicki said. “We need to find other ways of engaging with people, other ways of reaching out to people who will never be able to have this experience of coming here.”
On Feb. 24, the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted the words of Anna Ventura: “My morale is very high. We will see each other soon. Lots of kisses to everyone. All my thoughts are of you.” Two days later, the tweet continues, Ventura was “murdered in #Auschwitz with 520 other Jews from her deportation train.”
He has told the stories of Stefan Reyman, Katarzyna Kwoka and many others who died in the Auschwitz camp. Another series of tweets relates what happened on a given day in history.
“We work here for the survivors. We work here to commemorate the victims,” Sawicki said. “But we also work to teach people some kind of universal lesson and teach this history.”
Keeping facts straight
Sawicki also uses the account to call out organizations that get facts wrong. “Sometimes people say that we are too strict, and we are too cautious on details,” he said. “We are the institution that is supposed to look after the facts.”
And not just what most readers would consider facts. In early February, the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted about Josef Mengele, “an SS camp doctor who made selections and perpetrated deadly pseudo-medical experiments on Auschwitz prisoners.”
Another Twitter user quote tweeted it saying, “he was an animal.”
“No, he’s not,” the Auschwitz Memorial Twitter account responded.
“The biggest problem and challenge we face is that Josef Mengele was a human being and a doctor—even awarded for his bravery in combat zone,” the tweet continued. “And still he could believe in this horrible ideology and commit monstrous crime on its behalf.”
The memorial has even called out D.C.’s Holocaust Museum. Using a series of tweets to expand on the particular moment in history, the memorial explained that a group of prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau did not blow up one of the crematoria as the museum had tweeted. Rather, the memorial said, some prisoners had tried to cause an explosion, but SS guards entered before anything happened. There was, however, a fire set “to the undressing room of gas chamber IV,” the tweet explained.
The memorial also responds to social media trolls—users who provoke others with controversial posts—but does so only “when we feel there is an educational possibility,” he said.
“We do not talk with every internet troll,” Sawicki said. “You learn that not everyone is worth responding” to.
The memorial has no problem blocking users if they don’t follow a respectful guideline, but for the most part, Sawicki said, that hasn’t been a big issue.
“There are very few cases where we’ve had disrespectful comments or where we really have to delete something,” he said.
In fact, people police each other. If there’s a new comment on a 5-year-old picture or post, Sawicki might miss it. But other users don’t—and they message Sawicki to let him know.
Sawicki wants everyone to stop and think about what they’re saying when writing about the Holocaust on social media.
“The language they use can hurt people,” he said, especially if they think they are just joking.
Making a joke isn’t just making a joke, he said.
In an op-ed for The Guardian in November, Joe Mulhall, senior researcher at Hope not Hate, which monitors far-right groups and individuals, said the going-for-laughs attitude is prevalent among young online far right.”
“Where once deniers went to great lengths to scientifically ‘prove’ the Holocaust didn’t happen,” he wrote, “alt-right deniers are more likely to joke about it or even celebrate it.”
Although the way Holocaust denial looks has changed, it doesn’t make it any less dangerous.
“We look at the story of Auschwitz, and we see the gas chambers, and we see the suffering of so many people,” Sawicki said. “But we need to remember there was a whole path leading towards this tragedy. And it all starts with words.”
And today, Sawicki said, many of those words are being said through social media.
“People should look at their own environment and their own virtual community, what language is around them and react if they see that the language is turned into a tool of hatred,” he said. “Auschwitz tries to stand as a symbol of what hateful ideologies can result in. It all starts with the language that we use.”