In the age of the Internet, anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying rhetoric no longer circulates only in fringe hate groups but is exposed to everyone on social media. High-profile figures like Ye – formerly known as Kayne West – or the NBA player Kyrie Irving recently echoed anti-Semitic ideas on their online accounts.
Beyond these media characters, worrying survey results also show that anti-Semitism is increasingly widespread. In 2021, using the most recent data available in the United States, the Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents aux have reached an all-time high. According to one other ADL investigation, 85% of Americans believe at least one anti-Jewish trope, and about 20% believe six or more tropes — a big increase from just four years ago.
In 2021, a survey published by the Action and Protection League (APL), a partner organization of the European Jewish Association (EJA), and conducted over two years, estimated that 20% of Europeans have anti-Semitic views.
All of this adds up to a widespread lack of knowledge about the Holocaust. While this January 27 is held the International day dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust – the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau – it is important to rethink the way in which courses dealing with anti-Semitism are designed and the way in which the Holocaust is taught.
Beyond its study as a historical event, one should question its links with past and present anti-Semitism, which implies adapting to the current modes of information and life around the digital.
A toxic information landscape
The digital ecosystem in which today's anti-Semitism thrives is a Wild West of news and misinformation published by anyone and distributed in real time. Messages distributed on social networks and in news feeds are regularly filtered by algorithms that target the content users receive based on their profile, which can reinforce pre-existing beliefs.
Mainstream platforms like TikTok, which are growing rapidly among young people, can be used to promote anti-Semitism, as well as lesser-known apps like Telegram.
according to a report published in 2022 by the United Nations, 17% of public TikTok content about the Holocaust denied it or twisted the story. The same goes for almost one in five Twitter messages on the subject and 49% of the content on Telegram.
If it can offer new educational resources, artificial intelligence also poses the threat of easily disseminated and unchecked disinformation. For example, character AI et Historical Figures Cat allow you to chat with historical figures, including Holocaust victims like Anne Frank or those responsible for crimes like Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler's propaganda minister.
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These sites come with warnings that the characters' answers may be made up and that users should verify their historical accuracy, but it's easy to imagine how Internet users can be misled by these dialogues.
Deepfake videos are another potential danger to AI. Media experts warn of the risk of destabilization represented by this "degradation of the truth", that is to say this lack of distinction between the true and the false, as this type of artificial content spreads. Holocaust scholars prepare to fight the manipulation by deepfakes historical sources and teaching materials. It is particularly feared that the deepfakes are used to rework and downplay survivor testimonies.
Much of my research focuses on contemporary approaches to Holocaust education – for example, the need to rethinking the transmission of history while the number of survivors still able to testify is rapidly diminishing. Tackling a toxic information landscape is another fundamental challenge that requires innovative solutions.
As a first step, educators can promote media education, that is, the knowledge and skills needed to navigate and among online information and evaluate it. It's about teaching them to ask themselves who is the originator of a particular piece of information, what evidence is provided, and to investigate the authors of an unknown source by consulting what reputable websites say about it. This involves questioning the purpose of the source and reflecting on one's own point of view. Finally it is important to go up back to original source or context quotes.
Applying these skills in a course on the Holocaust could focus on identifying Stereotypes implicit and false information on which online sources rely, and on the attention to be paid to the identity of these sources and their purpose. Courses can also analyze how social networks can le holocaust denial and study common formats of online antisemitism, such as deepfake videos, memes and troll attacks.
Learning in the digital age
Holocaust scholars can also take advantage of new technologies, instead of just lamenting their pitfalls. For example, long after the death of the survivors, they would make it possible to "converse" with them in museums and classrooms using specially recorded testimonials and language technologies. These programs can match a visitor's questions with relevant parts of pre-recorded interviews.
Holocaust survivor Lili Leignel shares her story with children (Brut).
There are also immersive programs that combine recordings of survivor testimonies with virtual reality tours of concentration camps, survivor hometowns, and other historic sites like “The Journey Back” at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. In interviews conducted as part of my current research, visitors report that these experiences make them feel emotionally engaged with the survivors.
Explore their family tree, examining objects inherited from ancestors and passing on stories over dinner often helps people make sense of their identity.
The same principle applies to society. The study of the past helps to understand how previous people and events have shaped present phenomena, including anti-Semitism. It is important for young people to understand that the horrific history of anti-Semitism began before the Holocaust. Lead students to reflect on how indifference and collaboration fueled hate – or how ordinary people have opposed it – can inspire them to speak out and take action against rising anti-Semitism.
Holocaust education is not a neutral enterprise. As stated by the survivor and scholar Elie Wiesel receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim”.
Alan Marcus, Professor of Curriculum & Education, University of ConnectCut
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