In this month’s post, Dr. Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann and Tom Divon, Hebrew University, Jerusalem explore multimodal education and commemoration of the Holocaust on today’s most popular social media platform.
In less than a year, the trending short-video platform TikTok transformed from a mostly entertaining environment for lip-syncing, dancing, and other self-performances into an interest-based platform for sharing information about politics, sexuality, identity, history, and other topics. This development was accompanied by the rise of a format which we describe as “serious TikTok”. In such videos, users communicate socio-political affairs in engaging ways through digital storytelling while harnessing the platform’s features, aesthetics, and dialects, allowing them to creatively unpack complex topics, contextualise and provide information.
Following a controversy about TikTok users who performed as fictional Holocaust victims in a #POVHolocaustChallenge in August 2020, as well as the increase in antisemitic harassment and hate speech on the platform, ways of seriously dealing with the complex history of the Holocaust on TikTok gained special attention. In the following, we explore the specific modes individual and institutional TikTok creators use to address the history and memory of the Holocaust in their short video-memes and their ways of using TikTok’s asethetics and vernaculars of features and trends to produce more stimulating historical storytelling formats.
Hey TikTok, I’ve got a question for you. How do you feel about concentration camp memorials producing videos here?
These are the words of a young woman standing in front of the main gate in the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial in Austria (Video 1a).
Some members of the community on the platform, which is still mostly known for dancing and lip-syncing videos, answered:
I think it’s a great idea, welcome to tiktok!
Several comments responding to the official TikTok account of the Mauthausen Memorial emphasised the importance (Figure 1b):
it’s great to do it here bc you can reach more people! I’m grateful for that!
Important work! Keep going!
Keep it up! I’m sure you’ll find the audience. I’m here.
especially in times like these, where less and less people actually learn about the atrocities committed there, it is 1000% necessary to educate them!
Some, however, were also sceptical:
I think there are better and more RESPECTFUL ways to educate young people on concentration camps!
But even though many comments favoured the idea of Holocaust commemoration and education on TikTok, the question is still how to actually do that best. One comment raised an important issue:
There has to be a difference between educational videos and videos for “fun”.
How can short videos, ranging between 30 seconds to three minutes long, address a complex issue like the history of persecution and mass murder? How can a difficult heritage such as the history and legacy of concentrations camps from the Nazi era be screened next to dance challenges, makeup tutorials, and food recipes videos?
Multi-layered (historical) storytelling
What aesthetics, features, and functions are typical elements that can be used for videos that commemorate and educate about the Holocaust on TikTok? The point-of-view (POV) perspective plays a dominant aesthetic role on the platform. TikTokers are put into the position of spectators and witnesses of the events explained in the videos. As spectators, however, they are not passive. Multiple layers of address offer complex ways of storytelling as we do not only listen to the creators, but also focus on specific objects and documents presented in the background with the help of the green screen function, which enables creators to interact with these background objects by pointing to and highlighting specific parts. Furthermore, text inserts offer additional information and emphasis. Typically, TikTok videos also contain music. In the case of Holocaust-related videos, creators tend to choose either soft-tone musical excerpts that blend as a subtle layer in their videos or co-opt trending music challenges where they utilise an existing popular audio-meme. In so doing, TikTok videos gain a memetic structure that on the one hand condenses historical information and on the other communicates on multiple levels and adopts multimodal forms of address. Therefore, both despite and due to their short length, TikTok videos can deal with quite complex issues and engage users.
The level of engagement does not only depend on the specific content of the videos. Most importantly, engaging TikToks need a ‘hook’. Because users usually encounter informative content as part of their For You pages, which pre-curate a variety of content not specifically related to users’ interpersonal connections with others but based on users’ interests as traced by the platform’s algorithm, it is therefore important to attract attention during the first few seconds of the video. In addition, successful videos motivate viewers to stay and watch the content several times. Creators can incentivise multiple viewings through a loop that seamlessly connects the ending of a video with its beginning. Loops are particularly useful for videos dealing with complex matters such as Holocaust history and memory. During each new ‘run’ of the video, users can focus on different aspects that they might have overlooked on the first viewing.
An important characteristic of TikTok videos is their dialogic structure. Content on topics such as the Holocaust is always interrelated through a variety of features. Creators can interconnect video posts with the help of hashtags and thereby also refer to content produced by others on similar topics. Moreover, creators can reply to comments posted by users either in text or by creating a new video, allowing creators to directly answer questions and establish a dialogue with their audience. TikTok also offers particularly responsive features that foster topical communication, allow for negotiating controversial views, and offer facts and contextualising information in reaction to problematic, trivialising, or distorting content.
Most important among these responsive features are two that can be traced to TikTok’s origin as a music-related platform.
- The duet function, which allows one to directly react to a video by another creator, with the original video played alongside the new video. This split-screen enables direct comment and offers forms of interaction with other creators’ works. In the context of Holocaust-related content, this feature offers an opportunity to directly react to problematic comparisons of the Holocaust with contemporary events, but also allows for establishing a commemorative community by featuring and sharing videos that are seen as relevant and important.
- The stitch function, which enables creators to quote a particular part of another video and react to it with their own. This can be used to react to and criticise problematic statements, a technique that is used to challenge trivialising and distorting comparisons between the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust and anti-vaxxers that oppose state regulations against the pandemic. Besides that, the stitch can also be used as a creative tool to thematically connect with other creators.
On January 27, 2022, the @neuengamme.memorial posted a video explaining what was happening to prisoners in the former concentration camp at the same time as Auschwitz was liberated (Figure 1a). Several other memorial sites such as Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp Memorial (Figure 1b), Mauthausen Memorial (Figure 1c), Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Memorial, and the Villa ten Hompel memorial and museum in Münster (Germany) responded by stitching the video with their own creations reflecting on their specific local relations.
TikTok’s features and functions can be adopted and appropriated to the specific needs of individual and institutional creators to commemorate and educate about the Holocaust. Through these techniques a commemorative space evolves on TikTok that offers users a possibility to commemorate, engage with, and learn about the history and memory of the Holocaust. Supported by algorithmic methods of fostering engagement, this space is accessible to a global audience that does not necessarily need to be connected to the topic beforehand. This space can also serve to counter those users who (mis-)use TikTok for spreading hate and historical misinformation. Furthermore, TikTok’s features, and techniques can be helpful tools to confront Holocaust distortion and antisemitic harassment on the platform. In the next section, we explore the modes individual and institutional creators use to communicate Holocaust-related content on TikTok.
Modes of (historical) storytelling
We identified six modes of historical storytelling on TikTok that harness popular aesthetics, features, and trends for Holocaust-related videos:
- Commemorative – videos in which creators raise awareness of the Holocaust and its present implications as a historical event
- Responsive – videos in which creators attack and criticise users’ inappropriate comparisons of the Holocaust to other topics
- Explanatory – videos in which creators offer background information about disputed topics, emphasising historically marginalised stories
- Educational – videos in which Holocaust-related institutions conduct ‘mini-lessons’ on historical information
- Visit – videos in which creators document their visits to Holocaust-related sites
- Testimony – videos in which Holocaust survivors share their traumas and combat Holocaust ignorance among users.
One video could adopt several of these modes, but in most cases, we see one dominant mode of addressing.
The Commemorative Mode is primarily characterised by creators’ interest in raising awareness of the Holocaust and its present implications as an historical event. Creators use this mode often in the context of memorial days while integrating their videos in the vernaculars of TikTok’s trends or challenges. A specific example for a commemorative video in the context of memorial days is an initiative by the Jewish community from Genzforchange on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2021 (Video 2). For this video, several young creators contributed short pieces where they recite parts of a joint statement that resulted in the message:
May we never forget the lives lost and may we honor those that survived.
This style demonstrates TikTok’s contribution to collaborations where users can co-produce commemorative videos while addressing other users and emphasising the necessity of dealing with the memory and legacy of the Holocaust.
Another example shows that creators of commemorative videos adhere to TikTok’s vernacular of performativity while harnessing features of sound and image that afford artistic acts of commemoration. An interesting example is the ‘I Remember When’ challenge where creators adopt the first line of Gnarls Barkley’s song ‘Crazy’ and play it in a distorted loop that emphasises the part ‘I remember’(Figure 3b). In this video, the creator appropriates several photographs and objects related to the experience of the Holocaust, as well as references to traditional and current forms of antisemitism that result in the statement:
to this day jews feel the effects of the holocaust. we are still discovering things from this time. we are still being attacked. it goes unreported in many cases. its dangerous how uneducated people are.
This video-meme demonstrates the creative use and appropriation of historical sources and screenshots of contemporary news items and shows that commemoration on TikTok, and specifically by Gen-Z users, is often not past, but rather present- and future-oriented.
TikTokers’ tendency to make the history of the Holocaust relevant to the present moves beyond commemorative narratives when creators use the Holocaust as a meta-reference to the continuity of hate, discrimination, antisemitism, racism, and fights against problematic and distorting comparisons between past and present that circulate on TikTok. These are leading subjects of videos adopting the Responsive Mode, which explicitly attacks and criticises those comparisons and equations. For example, TikTokers use the stitch function to criticise others that compare abortion to the Holocaust or create a silence duet (Figure 2) where they reject the act of Holocaust distortion and respond only with facial expressions. Another popular style is videos of TikTokers that call-out other creators comparing COVID-19 vaccination to medical experiments or anti-vaxxers to Jews during the Holocaust. Such responsive videos often prominently feature Holocaust survivors that reject such claims as ahistorical. Responsive videos can also react to a specific user comment, (Figure 3) making it the centre of attention in the video, or can make use of the green screen feature and project a screenshot of a problematic Holocaust-related post or comment.
The Explanatory Mode is best suited for offering background information about disputed topics and can therefore also be combined with the responsive mode, but usually posts adopting this mode do not include ad-hoc context as seen in the responsive mode. Explanatory videos tend to focus on the presentation of historical information as facts and evidence. They nevertheless perform historical storytelling by often emphasising individual biographies, exploring historical objects, or including historical documents or photographs (Video 4). Therefore, this mode is also useful for emphasising forgotten and marginalised stories (Video 5) from the Holocaust and the history of World War II such as the persecution of peole with disabilities, LGTBQ people, the stories of women during the Holocaust, or the genocide of the Sinti and Roma. Explanatory videos are mostly used by individual creators in order to foster a fact-based debate (Video 6) on particular topics. They are also common among professional TikTok creators who focus on historical topics.
Although Holocaust institutions do post explanatory videos, they more often use the Educational Mode, which differs from the explanatory mode as it relies on institutional educational frameworks. For example, @holocaustuk or @annefrankhouse adopt educational strategies developed for other social media platforms. A dominant technique of these videos is use of a presenter (Figure 4a) that talks about a specific aspect or gives information about a specific chapter of Holocaust history while integrating historical photographs or other sources to illustrate the period. However, these videos often lack translation into TikTok’s audiovisual grammar by not implementing an engagement dimension, instead reducing their address to the presenter’s voice and visual content. They also abstain from adding text layers, geo-location tags, or hashtags built into the video-memes. The second dominant technique of educational videos is the slide show. These videos edit several slides with texts, documents, and visuals together with music to shed light on specific topics, events, or incidents. Using this technique, @holocausteducation created a format called ‘Mini-Lessons’ (Figure 4b) that deal with different elements of Holocaust history.
Videos posted by concentration camp memorial sites such as @neuengamme.memorial, @mauthausenmemorial, or @belsenmemorial adopt educational approaches and combine them with the introduction of their collections and the historical site. They offer variations on the dominant Visit Mode used primarily by individual TikTokers who document their visits to former concentration camp sites or Holocaust-related museums. These videos usually feature the TikToker’s personal encounter with the site and follow the creator’s own point of view (Video 6). Visit videos often contain panning shots or focus on particular details of the site or exhibits. Sometimes they contain explanatory elements such as text inserts. Most visit videos are short video shots and photographs edited together and accompanied by music. The videos created by memorials rather than individuals show different approaches to historical sites and combine elements of the visit mode with explanations provided by guides and presenters (Video 7). You can see the distinctions between these two approaches to the visit mode below:
A complementary approach to the Visit Mode is the Testimony Mode. If in the previous mode it was visitors who witnessed the Holocaust by engaging with the historical sites, in this mode we see Holocaust survivors who use TikTok to share their first-hand memories. Lily Ebert (98) and Tova Friedman (73) from the United States and Gideon Lev (86) from Israel were pioneering creators of testimonies on TikTok. In their videos, they utilise TikTok’s popular fragmented audiovisual aesthetics for dividing traumatic memories into segments. In this way, they adjust their testimonies to the attention span of young users on TikTok, and at the same time offer the possibility of a ‘TikTokTestimony’, as they turn their profiles into living repositories of memories. Each survivor adheres differently to TikTok’s popular vernaculars.
- Lev is motivated by political actions and combatting Holocaust distorters who compare COVID restrictions with the Holocaust, and frequently co-opts challenges (Figure 5a).
- Ebert creates an intimate space while using the comment feature, enabling her to address viewers’ questions about unusual topics like ‘if women in Auschwitz got their period’ (Figure 5b), and allowing complex forms of digital witnessing to emerge when users harness the duet function to show themselves listening to her testimonies (Figure 5c).
- The Testimony Mode is also used by institutions. In videos created by @holocausteducation and @keeping_memories, existing video testimonies of survivors recorded on earlier media forms are reused for the purpose of educating about the Holocaust on TikTok. In comparison to the videos created by Holocaust survivors directly for TikTok, these videos lack the direct address of the audience.
Challenging traditional practices
TikTok’s plural and memetic nature illustrates the platform’s potential for Holocaust education and commemoration and sets a new standard for complex digital discourse about the Holocaust. Each identified mode shows the translation by individuals and institutions of traditional practices of memorialization into TikTok’s vernaculars and demonstrates how the seemingly distant events of the Holocaust can become more relevant, tangible, and communicable to Gen-Z users. This translation through use of TikTok’s memetic and communicative features leads to creative communal engagements where users create responsive templates of content that, when provided with the proper context, it also sparks conversation among youth and allows the experience of (hi)story-telling to be much more autodidactic, intuitive, and engaging than on any other visual platform.
(© All images are included under fair use policy)
Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann is a Film & Media, Visual Culture, and German Studies scholar in the Department of Communication and at the European Forum of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Ebbrecht-Hartmann holds a Ph.D. from the Freie University, Berlin and was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Yad Vashem and at the Bauhaus University, Weimar. He is a member of the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Action, “Visual History of the Holocaust: Rethinking Curation in the Digital Age.”
Tom Divon is a Social Media and Culture researcher at the Department of Journalism and Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Divon’s research focuses on the evolution of social media platforms, social-political youth cultures on social media, and their potential for education processes. Divon explores TikTok cultures in three key areas: TikTokers engagements with Holocaust Commemoration and Education, TikTokers Performative Combatting of Antisemitism, and TikTokers Playful Activism in #Challenges