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Era of fake news erodes trust in historical truth

This year, the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day is the power of words, but we must also combat the power of deafening silence.

    Sean Spicer, former spokesperson for US President, Donald Trump, who told journalists that the Nazis did not use gas against their own people
    Sean Spicer, former spokesperson for US President, Donald Trump, who told journalists that the Nazis did not use gas against their own people

    It is 73 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 73 years since the horrors of the Holocaust were uncovered. Since then, the means through which we consume news may have changed, but the old methods of sowing hatred and mistrust have stubbornly clung on.

    One of the single greatest challenges we face today, in a "fake news" era, is that people no longer fully trust or believe the truth. 

    That challenge was most powerfully understood with the dangerous words spoken by former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, nearly two years ago when he claimed that Hitler “supported Zionism”. Mr Livingstone knew what he was doing. His deeply offensive and politically motivated version of history has now been adopted by many others.

    At the time, there was condemnation from some corners and he was suspended from the Labour Party – the final verdict is still unknown 20 months later. The deliberate distortion of history and profound insult caused to Holocaust survivors was immeasurable. Damage has been done that cannot be undone.

    Then there was Sean Spicer, former spokesperson for US President, Donald Trump. Telling journalists that the Nazis did not use gas against their own people and referring to “Holocaust centres”, was not only disgraceful, it bordered on the bizarre. These insensitive and – let us be clear - ignorant words, used by the then spokesperson for the most powerful man in the world, highlights the challenging times we live in.  

    In recent years, it is as if ignorance has been allowed to prevail, that historical facts have become hostage to politics, used to score political points and create a distorted version of the past that feed into a belief system. And that isn’t going away.

    Such is the scale of our task, that at the Holocaust Educational Trust, we regularly see social media posts claiming that “Hitler was right”, that there is “no difference between Nazis and Zionists” and that the Holocaust “didn’t happen, nobody was gassed”.

    Public figures are apparently clear that "racism will not be tolerated". And yet, antisemitism is given permission to thrive through the anonymity of social media. In fact, some are not even bothered by anonymity and they are proud to be associated with their toxic views, often quite confident that there are no consequences.

    When people stay silent on this issue, it emboldens the antisemites.

    This Holocaust Memorial Day, like every other before it and every other yet to come, is first about remembering: family, friends, loved ones, and giving a voice to the voiceless. But this January 27, we should also be standing together to say, enough is enough. We will challenge hate and antisemitism wherever it rears its ugly head.

    This year, the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day is the power of words. We all know the power words can have, but we must also combat the power of deafening silence. It has gone on long enough.

    Karen Pollock is chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust

     

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