On 8 February 2023, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET) and the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) marked Holocaust Memorial Day by hearing the testimony of Holocaust survivor Ruth Posner BEM, followed by a panel discussing contemporary online Holocaust denial and its intersection with extremism.
The panel was hosted by Hannah Rose, an ISCR fellow, alongside Danny Stone MBE from the Antisemitism Policy Trust, Karen Pollock CBE from the Holocaust Educational Trust, and Dr Erin Saltman from the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT). The event explored the role of the internet in spreading and amplifying Holocaust denial and the importance of tackling antisemitism and extremism.
This Insight provides an overview of the Holocaust Memorial Day event. First, I outline the importance of witnessing survivor testimony in tackling denialism today. Second, I outline the scale of Holocaust denial on the internet and how it has become mainstreamed by extremist and conspiracy actors. Finally, I outline the potential interventions identified by the panel and the benefits and limitations of these approaches.
The Importance of Survivor Testimonies
For most people, the Holocaust exists as a concept – a historical event that exemplifies the very worst of humanity. It is easy enough for this to remain theoretical when you learn about it in a classroom or a university syllabus. It is easy enough to dismiss it as a thing of the past.
This is why hearing directly from Holocaust survivors is so important. Listening to the testimony of a person who lived through the horror that has become the subject of so many books, films and TV shows brings the theoretical back into reality. It reminds us that six million is not just a number, but is comprised of individual lives with their own passions, struggles and stories.
With the number of living Holocaust survivors sadly dwindling, the number of direct eyewitnesses to this event is shrinking each year. Alongside this downward trajectory unfortunately comes a rise in Holocaust denial. When a survivor is sat in front of you, recounting the traumatic experiences of their youth, it is near impossible to refute or deny their lived experience. But as the opportunities to hear survivor testimonies diminish, the ability to question the validity of these experiences increases.
There are numerous efforts to record and immortalise survivor testimonies to ensure that generations to come will have the privilege of hearing from eyewitnesses about what they saw. However, it is also crucial to remember the part that we can all play in continuing their legacy and fighting against the evil of denialism.
Contemporary Online Denial
In the past, extremist views such as Holocaust denial were confined to the fringes and those holding these views were relatively difficult to locate. However, with the growth of access to the internet, such content is proliferated far more rapidly, as is a vast quantity of (dis)information. Though this has brought numerous benefits such as the democratisation of information and the decentralisation of communication, it has also brought significant risk. Harmful content, including antisemitism and Holocaust denial, is now readily available to anyone with an internet connection.
Research from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) and the Community Security Trust (CST) reveals that only 2% of the British population believes that the Holocaust did not happen. However, this rises to 4% of people who believe that the Holocaust was exaggerated. Though these numbers may seem relatively small, online searches for the term ‘Holohoax’ (an indicative term denoting denialism) rise by 30% each Holocaust Memorial Day. This demonstrates that there are a greater number of people who may be curious or unsure about the Holocaust, making them vulnerable to conspiracy theories about denial and further antisemitism.
At this point, it is important to specify what is meant by ‘Holocaust denial’. According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA):
“Holocaust denial refers specifically to any attempt to claim that the Holocaust/Shoah did not take place. Holocaust denial may include publicly denying or calling into doubt the use of principal mechanisms of destruction (such as gas chambers, mass shooting, starvation and torture) or the intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people”.
This is relatively simple to understand. But, over the years, Holocaust denial has evolved into different, less overt forms, sometimes called ‘Holocaust distortion’. Rather than an outright denial that the events of the Holocaust ever took place, this can manifest in a number of ways according to the IHRA, including minimising its impact, reducing the number of victims, blaming the Jewish people for their own genocide or blurring responsibility for the Holocaust.
The vastness of the range of concepts comprising denialism illustrates the inability of platforms to categorise and sanction it. It becomes near impossible to develop an algorithm to pinpoint denialist content when it encompasses so many forms of distortion. This problem is compounded by the use of coded language by denialist groups and individuals. Dr Erin Saltman invoked the example of emojis being used to denote white supremacy or question marks used as comments to denote a questioning of the truth of the Holocaust. The complex nature of this communication and its ever-evolving catalogue of coded terms complicates the development of algorithms further. How could one develop an algorithm to identify the use of a question mark as denialism?
Further to this, Holocaust denial treads a delicate line between being classified as legal or illegal in the UK. As Danny Stone illustrated during the panel, Nick Griffin, ex-leader of the British National Party (BNP), has been prosecuted for Holocaust denial in this country under the Public Order Act. So too, British blogger Alison Chabloz was prosecuted under the Communications Act for Holocaust denial. Despite this, denying the Holocaust is still not technically illegal. As such, social media companies are extremely reticent to remove it, though Facebook did explicitly ban Holocaust denial in 2020.
Links to Extremism
The major concern with Holocaust denial is where it can lead. Denialism is rooted in a specific antisemitic, conspiratorial worldview that can be extremely damaging and have real-world consequences. Holocaust denial is most commonly used by the far-right and is especially rife on smaller, unregulated social media platforms such as 4chan, where it can spread most quickly and effectively.
Analysis of the social media of far-right terrorists often reveals an obsession with conspiracy theories about Jewish people, including denial of the Holocaust and the belief that Jewish people are behind global ills, such as QAnon. For example, the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was found to extensively consume extreme antisemitic content, including outright denial of the Holocaust. There is a legitimate concern that denialist content can lead to the development of radical far-right views and, as we know all too well, this can prove fatal. This is why addressing this content remains so important.
So, how can we solve this seemingly insurmountable issue of online Holocaust denial? There are a number of ways in which we can begin to tackle this, through education, legislation and regulation.
For Danny Stone, it is clear that the government should play a role in ensuring that harmful content is not disseminated freely across the Internet. The ‘Online Safety Bill’, which has just had its second reading in the House of Lords, provides an opportunity to do so. The Bill will introduce Ofcom as a regulator for the online space and implement duties of care on platforms to ensure they are enforcing their terms and conditions and, where necessary, using age verification processes. In terms of content that is not illegal but may still be harmful, including Holocaust denial and antisemitism more broadly, the Bill proposes a toggle system whereby one can choose whether this content is visible or not on one’s page. Danny is very clear that he thinks this toggle should be on by default, to shield unsuspecting users from dangerous content. Though not an exact solution, we hope that this will make some headway towards reducing online harm.
Tech companies also bear some responsibility for the content being spread on their platforms. Dr Erin Saltman spoke of the data-driven approach used by Meta to recognise Holocaust denial as an issue and add it to their terms of service as unacceptable speech. However, other companies, especially smaller ones, are reticent to designate denialist content in this way, meaning that more extreme, harmful content proliferates on these platforms.
As aforementioned, Holocaust denial is a complex type of hate that can come in many coded forms and this can make it extremely difficult for tech companies to limit it. A potential solution to this is the development of a detailed, regularly updated definition that would allow companies to develop sophisticated algorithms to pinpoint it. If companies can be sure that they are only targeting denialist content, they are likely to be far more willing to cooperate with efforts to remove it. The development of this kind of definition will not be especially easy and will require experts from multiple disciplines to ensure it is robust and all-encompassing.
For Karen Pollock, the most obvious way to combat Holocaust denial is through education. In her view, championing historical evidence is the best way to spread truth and cut through the lies of denialism. Similarly, Dr Erin Saltman spoke of a method of counterspeech that can be used to draw people away from extreme conspiratorial content. When users search for specific kinds of hate speech, this can trigger them to be directed towards organisations that can change their minds through educational tools. According to psychological theory, a person needs to see a message twice a day for 5-7 days in order for it to start to change their mind, so bombarding them with this kind of content does have the potential to take people from passive absorbers of hate to actively educated users.
The issue of Holocaust denial is becoming ever more present and concerning in a world dictated by online content and where the number of living survivors is dwindling. Holocaust denial presents a real threat to society, both as an embodiment of antisemitism and its links to extremist ideology. In this context, commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day is critical. With denial on the rise, it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that we preserve the memory of the past. We can do this in many ways, from government regulation to the development of comprehensive definitions but, ultimately, there will need to be a cross-sector and multistakeholder effort to eradicate this problem. The best thing that individuals can do is educate themselves, listen to the testimony of survivors and take this forward. Once you hear a testimony, you yourself become a witness and are able to take that and educate others. Combatting online Holocaust denial will require an active effort from all corners of society and we can each play our part in ensuring that the truth prevails.