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Institutional let-down: A wake-up call

Gidon Lev on Tiktok

There’s no way to be poetic or polite about it. I feel defeated and alone. I’m tired of getting pats on the head for creating and maintaining a Tiktok account with nearly half a million followers that teaches Holocaust education and remembrance while being overlooked or ignored by large Jewish agencies, organizations, and institutions that are very much aware of the growing crisis of Holocaust denial, antisemitism and online hate.  I’m right here, I want to scream. Right here, on Tiktok! Check your email!

Deep breath. Let me catch you up. Gidon Lev survived four years in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt. He’s 87 years old and has six kids, 15 grandkids, and two great-granddaughters. He has lived in Israel since 1959. He was widowed in 2012, and we met in 2017. Gidon wanted me to edit some writing he’d done about his life. I said no. I didn’t know enough about the Holocaust or contemporary Israeli history and felt I wasn’t the right person for the job.

Nevertheless, Gidon persuaded me, and it didn’t take long for us to develop a relationship and fall in love. We have a 30-year age difference, which strikes many people as odd — but not us. We are like two peas in a pod. However, one significant advantage of our age difference was my familiarity with the landscape of social media.

In July of 2021, I decided that perhaps more people would be aware of the book that resulted from our relationship if we went on Tiktok. Within hours, the antisemitic comments began to appear on our account. Very quickly and organically, our content shifted away from how cute Gidon is or how people should read our book to combatting antisemitism and teaching about the Holocaust. We took on Joe Rogan and got a lot of media attention — and hate. Gidon was interviewed on many television channels and profiled in articles highlighting his work on social media. You may have seen him. I’m proud of Gidon and the work we have done together. 

For Gidon, this is novel, telling his story on Tiktok. I think he enjoys the challenge and certainly the positive attention.  He is aware of the sizable antisemitism on Tiktok but is not exposed to most of it, since I get rid of it before he can see it. I am a human hate-filtering machine. I don’t recommend the job.

Gidon and I create content on Tiktok daily, answering questions like: “Was it really that terrible in the Holocaust?” “What’s the difference between a death camp and a concentration camp?” or “Did you know Anne Frank?” Recently, we received a comment that said, “six million and one now, ha ha ha”  If Gidon is the engine of optimism that keeps our account going, I am the increasingly grim face behind the account.

Search the word “Holocaust” on Tiktok. One of the first results you will see is “Holocaust never happen” (sic).

A few prominent Jewish organizations, recognizing Gidon’s influence, have asked him to either speak at an event, record an interview, or even make a Tiktok or Instagram promoting their institution, and he has gladly done so. But the relationship is not reciprocal. There is a disconnect. “Great job!” and “Thank you for the work you do!” are nice but not helpful in any pragmatic way. The culture of large organizations and institutions seems mired in molasses and hopelessly out of touch.  Why isn’t our account an official ambassador of a large organization and given the practical support it needs to keep going? Beats me.

I feel as if I am shouting into the stale wind of bureaucratic organizations unable or unwilling to think outside of the box in a time of dire need. #Itstartewithwords is the hashtag the Claims Conference is currently using. Indeed. It really did. And those words are being magnified, amplified, and morphed on a daily basis. The Claims Conference has created a terrific website with resources, quizzes, and maps of where people can find Holocaust museums. Great stuff. But these resources are unlikely to reach the eyeballs of the people who most need to see them.  That would require a willingness to learn and several mouse clicks. Too much “friction,” as any advertiser already knows.

There are a handful of Jewish organizations on Tiktok, but they have vanishingly few followers. The Claims Conference does not allow comments on its content. No engagement, no followers. That’s how Tiktok works.  But dealing with comments means hiring a human to do so. Organizations already operating on lean budgets, with staff to pay and grants to apply for are unable or unwilling to invest in the human capital necessary to address this supremely dangerous spreader of hate — the internet. Technology cannot yet reproduce the human effort needed to suss out whether a comment is sincere or mocking. Technology is not yet able to decide whether to click on a profile, examine it for the latest emojis and symbols, and make a call as to whether this is a bored teenager, bot, real-life threat, or simply a very inarticulate young person who is truly asking a question. It takes a human to do that.  Resources need to be redirected to meet this reality. 

It would be really nice if the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and members of the US Holocaust Commission replied to my emails asking for support and guidance.  The ADL, which has launched a comprehensive program to combat online hate, seems to have an automated email system. In any event, I have never successfully gotten through to a human being there. Tell me, what is wrong with this picture?

There is a particular governmental agency that Gidon provided an interview and social media photo opp for that reciprocated with “We love you guys!”  We love them, too, but I while I have asked, I have not been invited to attend this agency’s meetings about tackling  online hate and Holocaust education.  My emails have been cc’d and passed back and forth to no avail. Finally, our interactions just stopped.  What a huge missed opportunity it is for any organization or institution to overlook The True Adventures on Tiktok and its impact which is happening daily, in real time. This is not an academic study. This is not a theory or a quiz or a map. This is us on Tiktok. Every day.

Our account, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev offers a wealth of experience and data. For example, which Tiktoks have gone the most viral and what do people know or not know about the Holocaust? Which gender is more likely to follow our account? (Answer: female). Which gender is most likely to leave a hate comment? (Answer: male). In which country does our account have the most exposure? (Answer: the United States).

We see the disinformation and misperceptions about the Holocaust. We see both sincere questions and cruel mocking. We see a staggering amount of ignorance, hate and nihilism.

“I am 30 years old, what I am supposed to do about something that happened 80 years ago?!

The language of antisemitism online is evolving rapidly, adapting in real-time, borrowing many of its terms from the gaming community and utilizing emojis and memes, combining images and music as dog whistles for antisemites.  In fact, our account was part of a study at Hebrew University headed up by Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann and Tom Divon. The study made significant inroads on the importance of Holocaust Education on TikTok and the nature and virality of online hate.

“Online Hate is a product of human and computational agents,” Divon explains. “On TikTok, hate speech is being spread by users who utilize the platform’s powerful exposure mechanism (the “ForYou” page) for better dissemination of their messages. They gain visibility by translating hate into TikTok’s grassroots content of memes which is highly rewarded by algorithmic amplification.” As TikTok’s algorithm keeps promoting hate to millions of users, Divon emphasizes the importance of institutions stepping in. “We need more institutional supervision on TikTok. Though the moderation system is being calibrated based on users’ reports, and TikTok is taking positive steps to point users to trustworthy sources when searching for ‘Holocaust,’ it is still far from perfect.” Divon adds “In some instances, the algorithm is promoting the controversial content instead of downplaying it. This happens too often on TikTok and is rooted in the monetization system. Sadly, hate-related content “earns” more attention which translates to engagement.”

In the online world, Divon says, “engagement equals more time users are on the app. If digital platforms take away the hate while policing users’ behaviors more strictly – for many users, it takes away the fun. We need more and more institutions to be there – where young people lacking knowledge about the Holocaust spend most of their time – to remind them that hate is not something celebrated on behalf of virality.”

It’s not news that social media is the new frontier of antisemitism, but I suggest we take seriously that it might also be the new frontier of Holocaust education.

Holocaust education is mandated in fewer than half of the United States, and even where it is taught, it is limited in scope and, in some states, under attack. Lawmakers and educators in Texas, Ohio, and Indiana have suggested that teachers remain “impartial” and teach the Holocaust from multiple points of view.

We need to be much more organized, accessible, innovative, and responsive to be truly effective in the online space. In the rush and panic of this current crisis, I think many of us are tripping on our shoelaces instead of tying our shoes first. 

How can the average social media user encountering antisemitic hate or Holocaust disinformation get the support they need? That’s a Google deep-dive, if ever there was one.  The ADL is one of the organizations at the forefront of this. Just take a look at their Social Pattern Library. Amazing, right? But somebody just commented “six million and TWO now ha ha ha” on my account, and I need help and support that is easier to access than six clicks and several page refreshes. 

I would love to compile what I have learned on Tiktok to teach other Jewish content creators and social media users about the memes, bots, emojis, and dog whistles they will encounter. I would like to supply a list of resources and advice. This resource should be crowd-sourced with other social media users so that we can combine our collective experience and be stronger together. But this is not something that can or should be done in one’s “spare time.” The problem is far too urgent for that. There are indeed myriad resources about all of this. But they aren’t all in the same place and are not easily accessible.  We need a crowd-sourced database. We need a hub for this. 

The True Adventures Tiktok account is verified, but it’s not enough. In fact, that status likely draws more negative attention from trolls and bots. In fact, our account has been under a focused, concerted attack by antisemites for the past week or so, with over 500 horrifying comments received – and blocked. It’s not slowing down. I’d like to know what entity or group has decided to set upon us and from which platform. Reddit? 4Chan? I don’t know, and I don’t have the resources or know-how to find out how to stop this harassment.  For this and other reasons, our account needs to be an ambassador for a larger organization and to receive the support it needs to not just carry on but help create and support more accounts like it. 

Institutions and large organizations have established missions and are famously slow to respond to new situations. These are not cultures ready to adapt to a new reality. But they must. If a Holocaust survivor’s account on Tiktok, with almost half a million followers, has reached out to and is not on the radar of the USHMM or the ADL — Houston, we have a problem. 

About the Author
Julie Gray is a writer and editor who made the leap from Los Angeles to Israel many years ago and has had many (mostly) humorous adventures ever since. She is the author of The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal. Holocaust Survivor. Optimist.
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