Canadian Anti-Hate Network
A new report highlights the prevalence and harm of antisemitic Holocaust internet memes. In an analysis of over 2,900 individual memes, the report takes a long look at how ironic humour can be used to spread hatred.
Released by the Toronto Holocaust Museum’s Online Hate Research and Education Project, the report “Holocaust Denial, Distortion and Celebration Memes” examines the phenomenon of memes being a key tool in efforts to deny, distort, and celebrate the Holocaust.
“Online hate takes many forms, and not all of them are obvious. Once peddled painstakingly through a limited array of tools, hate and antisemitism can now be shared with millions on social media, often without consequences,” the report reads. “Posters and pamphlets affixed to lamp posts have effectively been replaced by Internet memes, which fulfill a similar propagandizing purpose.”
Whether it be references to Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster or mobsters from The Sopranos, the versatility of online memes as a medium allows any notable, or even newly created, characters be recast – including for hate.
Funded through the Government of Canada’s Anti-Racism Action Program, the report focuses on the Holocaust continues to be weaponized against Jewish people and communities while also seeking to “foster public understanding of its continued relevance in the realm of online hate.”
While a meme is any unit of cultural information, this report focuses on image and text-based memes found in “visual online environments.” These are communication tools that are easy to produce and replicate.
In memes collected and analyzed for the report, Jews are targeted by hate speech more than any other identifiable group. Often targeted by hate speech and hate crimes, Jewish people are the second-most targeted demographic and the most targeted religious group by police-reported hate crimes in Canada, according to OHREP.
The Holocaust remains one of the most prominent themes in hateful memes published online by Canadians. The analysis found that in the over 2,900 memes captured for the study, 6% referenced the Holocaust in explicit terms.
The motivation behind sharing memes that distort the Holocaust can vary, the report notes.
“While some are made for the explicitly antisemitic purpose of undermining belief in the Holocaust, others invoke Holocaust memory in service of different political causes.
“Holocaust appropriation in internet memes can distort Holocaust memory, whether or not the primary message of the meme is intentionally hateful.”
Memes that celebrate the Holocaust were more often shared as neo-Nazi and white supremacist propaganda, while denial and distortion memes served as messaging for a wider range of ideologies.
“Internet memes are often a very important tool for radicalization,” Dan Collen, one of the report’s authors and a researcher for the UJA Holocaust Education Centre's Online Hate Research and Education Project, told the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “They're often overlooked because we associate internet memes so strongly with themes that are humourous and universally relatable and because we interpret hate propaganda as having greater barriers to access than simply making a meme. However, this is part of what makes them so effective.”
Pre-internet, the creation of hate propaganda was a risky process, Collen adds, as the creators would be responsible for the design and printing. The internet allows propagandists to mitigate these risks. Tools like social media make it easier to organize and spread propaganda simultaneously.
“The humourous expectations of internet memes also lends plausible deniability to hate movements that use them strategically. It is much easier for hate-peddlers to convince onlookers that their propaganda is "just a joke" when it is made in a format that people associate with, well, just that: a joke.”
Collen and OHREP’s report comes on the recent release of the Hatepedia, a publicly accessible database of symbols, terms, themes, and – of course – meme characters commonly used in online hate.
Editor's Note: The Canadian Anti-Hate Network supported the grant application, and continues to provide feedback, for the Online Hate Research and Education Project and Hatepedia. Both the report’s authors, Étienne Quintal and Dan Collen, have previously contributed to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.