Why is Holocaust denial rampant on Gen Z’s favourite news source?

Educational content creators on TikTok are fighting disinformation one myth-busting video at a time


When Holocaust educator and TikToker Sofia Thornblad received a “Holocaust denial manifesto” in her DMs, she did what any responsible social media user would do: she reported it.

Thornblad, who runs a TikTok account where she posts informational videos about the Holocaust and her work as a Jewish Museum curator in Oklahoma, received the manifesto shortly after October 7. It was a hodgepodge of antisemitic disinformation, the very content her videos work to counter. But when Thornblad reported the message, TikTok said it did not violate community guidelines, and did nothing about it.

Thornblad is among a number of TikTokers taking to the platform to educate users about the Holocaust amid a darkening backdrop of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial. Especially as more and more young people take to TikTok for the lion’s share of their daily news, the accuracy of its content becomes particularly crucial; on an app which has become a veritable breeding ground for harmful disinformation, content creators like Thornblad may just be heroes in a digital battle between good and evil, truth and deception. 

A 2020 survey of Holocaust knowledge among American millennials and Gen Z by the Claims Conference revealed that 63 per cent of those surveyed did not know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and over half of them believed the death toll to be less than two million. Nearly half of the respondents could not name a single concentration camp, and three per cent percent flatly denied that the Holocaust had happened at all.

The survey also showed that about half of respondents have been exposed to Holocaust denial or distortion on social media.

“To hear people say that these things never happened is just - well, I can't even put it into words, to be honest,” said Will, an influencer and educational content creator, who wouldn’t give his last name out of safety concerns. Will began his TikTok account EasyHistoryVideos just two months ago. He has already amassed millions of views on his conspiracy-busting educational Holocaust videos, which he creates to demonstrate that Holocaust denial “is intellectually a dead end.”

“I have followed this for years - I know all the typical lines of arguments they make, all the things they say. Mainly these arguments are really faulty, shoddy, flawed theories about what people think couldn't have happened, and not actually good arguments that explain what did.”

Contemporary deniers often latch on to debunked claims made by pseudo-historian and Nazi apologist David Irving, who became a kind of martyr for likeminded provocateurs when he served a three-year prison sentence in Vienna for "trivialising, grossly playing down and denying” the Holocaust. He doubted the existence of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the scale of the Holocaust’s death toll, espousing the same doubt invoked by Richard Verall’s 1974 pamphlet titled “Did Six Million Really Die? The Truth at Last.”

A quick scroll through the comments on Will’s TikTok videos demonstrates the cockroach-like resilience of this ideology:

“You can’t dispute anything David Irving said, hence why they tried to arrest him,” one commenter wrote.

“Holding camps NOT death camps. Even the chimney was built after the war for effect,” wrote another.

“If it happened (it didn’t) they deserve it.”

“Ah yes because it’s possible to kill 6 million people in 5 years, definitely.”

Though Will said he frequently reports and deletes offensive comments like these, the sheer quantity makes it impossible to keep his comment section clean. And even when he does raise a complaint against hateful comments on TikTok, often nothing is done about them.

“What we've realized is that reporting is futile,” said Imran Ahmed, Founder and CEO of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), an NGO working to stop the spread of online hate speech and disinformation. “In fact, it compounds the harm, because there's nothing worse than reaching out your hand, asking for help, and for someone to just ignore you. That's what these platforms are doing: they are systematically compounding the harm done by trolling and abuse by turning a blind eye to it.”

A 2021 study by CCDH found that social media platforms failed to act on nearly 90 per cent of antisemitic conspiracy theories about 9/11, the COVID pandemic and Jewish control of world affairs. The same study also found that TikTok closed just 5 per cent of accounts reported for sending racist abuse to Jewish people, like the manifesto Thornblad received in her DMs.

Despite what seems to be an obvious and worsening problem on the app, a TikTok spokesperson told the JC that the platform “strictly prohibits content that promotes antisemitism and Holocaust denial.”

She pointed to TikTok’s recent partnership with UNESCO and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) to combat Holocaust distortion and denial; since the initiative was launched in 2022, a search of the term “Holocaust” on TikTok offers users a link to WJC and UNESCO’s joint website page with facts about the Holocaust.

According to the spokesperson, the site has received more than three million visitors from TikTok since the collaboration with WJC and UNESCO began.

But the move does nothing to address the proliferation of antisemitic content and the lack of content moderation to adequately assess comments, messages and videos for breaches to community guidelines.

Author and social media creator Dov Forman, who began his TikTok account to document the story of his 100-year-old great-grandmother and Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert, reports hateful comments and messages all the time but finds they are rarely taken down, even when they explicitly refer to Holocaust denial or distortion theories.

Forman said he often sees the comment “Holohoax” with the o’s replaced by the number 0 “so it gets through the reporting system.” Similarly, Will said he receives comments with the number 271,000 and two lightning strike emojis, which would seem nonsensical to anyone outside the bubble of Holocaust disinformation, but actually refers to a discredited Holocaust death count often employed by deniers and conspiracists. The lightning strikes, Will said, are used for their resemblance to the logo for the SS.

“I think ultimately, it requires TikTok's content moderation to have an awareness of what they're dealing with,” said Will. “An algorithm perhaps won't immediately understand when somebody writes 271,000 as a comment with lightning emojis, but I know exactly what that looks like.”

In response to complaints about this blind spot, the TikTok spokesperson said: “We know that content is constantly evolving and people change the language they're using in attempts to evade our moderation, so we regularly review and update our safeguards, including keyword lists.”

But content creators like Forman feel they have yet to benefit from such updates. He admitted that it feels like TikTok administrators “care more about the money in their own pockets than the safety of their users and creators,” which is a gentler way to say what Ahmed has been furiously trying to tell the world for years.

“As long as they're able to addict the users, they are able to serve them ads and make a ton of money out of it,” said Ahmed. "This naive belief that you can persuade Mark Zuckerberg to change his business model through moral persuasion when it has made him worth $100 billion before he turned 40 is frankly insane."

Ahmed said platforms like TikTok have no real incentive to crack down on hate speech and disinformation because of the high engagement such content generates: “People, unfortunately, spend more time watching things that trigger them emotionally, that upset them.”

And so the algorithm tunnels the user deeper into unsettling — or altogether false — subject matter. And the more immersed the user becomes, the harder it gets to distinguish fact from fiction.

Paweł Sawicki, a spokesman for the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum in Poland, said the foundation confronts Holocaust denial content on social media “every day,” likely thanks to Ahmed’s conjecture: the algorithm will offer content most likely to touch a nerve.

But Sawicki never engages.

“Deniers hate, and this is the only thing they do. They harass and insult the memory of the victims. Holocaust deniers do not care about the facts, and they do not care about the victims.

“One of the reasons we became active on social media over ten years ago was because we noticed deniers using those platforms to spread their hatred,” said Sawicki. “As a rule, we do not discuss with deniers, but every day we post facts, names, documents, and stories that explain the history of Auschwitz.”

Sawicki said social media companies such as TikTok become complicit by allowing deniers to spread hateful disinformation. But no matter how unethical the choices made by those in charge of these platforms, Sawicki affirms that the role of Holocaust remembrance sites like the Auschwitz Memorial remains the same: to “oppose all lies, misinterpretations, distortions or instrumentalisations of the tragedy and memory of the victims of Auschwitz.”

While the tech moguls profiting off disinformation hold disproportionate power to maintain the status quo of what Ahmed calls the “asymmetric battlefield” of TikTok, educational content creators – like Forman, Will, and Thornblad, as well as memorial foundations like Auschwitz – also play a vital role in “reorienting” that battlefield. By contributing reliable information to the app, fighting for historical accuracy and the preservation of Holocaust survivors’ stories, they are helping, little by little, to swing the balance in favour of good. In favour of the truth.

Thornblad said she’s received only a handful of messages from people who used to believe in the Holocaust denial narrative but were able to learn the truth through the content she’s posted, an outcome she called “the best case scenario.” Amid the taunting, delusive comments, the antisemitic manifestos and TikTok’s ongoing negligence, a message like that offers a flash of hope for the app’s wearied disinformation fighters.

"That feels pretty good, when someone messages you and says, ‘Hey, I used to think that parts of this were not true - thank you for pointing me in the right direction.’” Thornblad said. “It's just not happening enough.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive