Messaging platform Telegram, a major source of news and information in Russia and across much of the world, is so rife with Holocaust denial and distortion that nearly half of public content shared by users related to the issue falls into these categories, more than on other platforms, according to a new study led by the UNESCO.
People posting such content have found ways to evade moderation, including vague nods that signpost for users more explicit material on other platforms, or through inside jokes, memes and references that mock or glorify genocide.
The study, published in partnership with the World Jewish Congress, is based on a manual review of nearly 4,000 Holocaust-related posts across Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter.
Given the sense that “a certain rapprochement between conspiracy, covid-skeptical but also racist and anti-Semitic theories” had emerged in recent years, UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay told The Washington Post that the agency saw good reason to collect evidence.
“Holocaust distortion trails world events and shifts in form depending on current affairs, areas of deep public concern and the evolving news agenda,” the report finds, adding that Holocaust distortion in 2021 was often linked to anti-lockdown protests, including anti-Semitic “associations of Jews with disease.”
Researchers selected keywords meant to include a diverse range of ways people discuss the Holocaust online — some more generic including “Holocaust,” and some commonly used in relation to antisemitism or Holocaust denial.
The report looked at content in English, French, German and Spanish, and found that percentages of Holocaust denial content varied by language and platform. On Telegram, 49 percent of content on public Telegram channels discussing the Holocaust either denies or distorts its history, the report notes. In English and French, about half of the posts deny or distort history. In German, the number rises to more than 80 percent.
On Twitter, 19 percent of all public Holocaust-related content either denies, or more commonly distorts, historical fact, the study finds, as does 17 percent on TikTok, 8 percent on Facebook and 3 percent on Instagram.
In a statement to The Post on Wednesday, Telegram spokesperson Remi Vaughn wrote: “Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have made misinformation the problem that it is today by promoting sensational posts with their algorithmic feeds. This is far less relevant on Telegram where people get only the content they explicitly subscribe to.”
The study defines Holocaust distortion as the significant and deliberate misrepresentation of historical facts. It can include deflecting responsibility for the Holocaust onto its victims, efforts to minimize the Holocaust’s impact or the role of those complicit in carrying it out, along with “smearing” victims or “celebrating” perpetrators.
Holocaust denial includes claims that the genocide never took place, or that call into doubt the means or intentionality of the genocide.
The report notes that “Telegram does not have a policy to take action on Holocaust denial or distortion, creating a safe haven for those who wish to deny or distort the genocide.”
“We can clearly see that we have a major problem of lawless zones — of networks that ensure privileged platforms for haters. And it’s a violence that circulates sometimes without any regulation or moderation by Telegram. And we must not let that take hold,” Azoulay told The Post.
She said there is a “fragile equilibrium” between responsibility and freedom of expression — but it’s always fragile in democratic societies, and “we have to find the right balance.”
Telegram’s Vaughn told The Post that Telegram is “a platform for free speech, including that we do not agree with. That said, we must ensure our apps remain accessible on all platforms in order for everyone to peacefully express opinions. Posts that glorify or encourage violence are explicitly forbidden by Telegram’s terms of service and are removed by our moderators through a combination of proactive moderation in public spaces and user reports.”
UNESCO said it and the World Jewish Congress “work in partnership” with Facebook and TikTok to redirect users searching for terms related to the Holocaust to websites with facts about the roots, processes and consequences of the Holocaust.
Noack reported from Paris.