Inside: Messag es of hate re main, though their source and how they are transmitted have changed.
Fairfield University history professor Gavriel Rosenfeld notices disturbing echoes in the Oct. 27 shooting that killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
The synagogue shooting took place roughly two weeks before the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” which began Nov. 9, 1938, in Germany, and in which about 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and about 100 Jews were killed.
The Pittsburgh shooting highlights a parallel between Nazi Germany and some of the violence happening today, Rosenfeld said.
Then as now, some people have been radicalized through exposure to writing, photos or other materials demonizing other sectors of the population.
In Nazi Germany, it was state-sanctioned propaganda that fueled the hate, including extremist films and literature.
Modern day inflammatory speech doesn’t necessarily come from government; it can come from organizations and individuals seeking to find — or create — like-minded comrades.
Many of those messages are spread online.
The man arrested in the synagogue shootings, Robert Bowers, regularly posted antiSemitic theories and memes on a social media site called Gab, which was suspended in the wake of the shootings, but was back online about a week later.
“There is a big difference between what existed in the ’30s and what exists on the internet today,” Rosenfeld said. “This is what we call the democratic character of the internet in its ugliest form.”
Despite that difference, Rosenfeld and other experts see a direct line between the way people were influenced by Nazi propaganda and the effect of modern social media.
Anat Biletzki, an Albert Schweitzer professor of philosophy at Quinnipiac University, said it’s not hard to draw a connection between violence then and now — “a certain sector of the society gets caught up in a certain discourse, and it changes something in the atmosphere and the way people listen and talk.”
What is propaganda?
Rosenfeld said what’s happening on sites like Gab, Facebook and Instagram isn’t technically propaganda, because it’s not coming from a government.
But modern, social media content — from organized groups and lone distributors — does conform with other definitions of the term.
According to the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, an organization that existed from 1937 to the early 1940s — a time that encompassed the rise of Germany’s Third Reich — propaganda is “expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups with reference to predetermined ends.”
In a document called “How to Detect Propaganda,” institute researchers said “Often the propagandist does not want careful scrutiny and criticism; he wants to bring about a specific action.” The document theorized propaganda works because it appeals to emotion rather than reason.
“They make us believe and do something we would not believe or do if we thought about it calmly, dispassionately,” the document reads. “In examining these devices, note that they work most effectively at those times when we are too lazy to think for ourselves; also, they tie into emotions which sway us to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ nations, races, religions, ideals” and so on.
Rosenfeld had a much simpler classification for the anti-Semitic, racist and otherwise discriminatory material populating much of social media.
“It’s pure, unadulterated hatred,” he said.
“There is a big difference between what existed in the ’30s and what exists on the internet today. This is what we call the democratic character of the internet in its ugliest form.” Gavriel Rosenfeld, Fairfield University
Vulnerable to the message
Rosenfeld said the hate spewed in certain corners of social media is designed to influence.
“My hunch is that people who spent all their lives online are not (engaging) in other ways,” Rosenfeld said.
Again, he likened this to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who he said had no real family and sought meaning elsewhere — first through the military, then through extremist politics.
Rosenfeld said he doesn’t believe most people swayed by hateful materials were born racist or anti-Semitic. Rather, their thoughts and ideas were shaped by exposure to certain messages.
Biletzki, meanwhile, said her theory is that propaganda appeals to those who are “lonely, gullible, maybe bitter.”
She said some people who latch onto hateful messages might be taking their cues from those in leadership positions — sometimes specifically from President Donald Trump. Indeed, critics of Trump have denounced what they see as his discriminatory policies regarding immigrants, Muslims and other groups, and have said his rhetoric inflames possible violent tendencies in certain members of his base.
Defenders of Trump have pushed back at that characterization, saying he is not to blame for the shooting in Pittsburgh or other acts of violence, including the pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, members of the media and others who have criticized or been criticized by Trump.
Rosenfeld said, the phenomenon of people motivated to hateful actions by words and images isn’t new.
“I think, for those who study anti-Semitism and history in general, this isn’t surprising,” he said. “This has happened a billion times before.”