In the year 1929, the Nazi propaganda tabloid Der Stürmer published a caricature of an imaginary group of devious looking Jewish people, peeling off in a car after apparently running over a German boy, left bleeding in the arms of his father.
In the year 2017, the President of the United States retweeted a video of a dark-haired teenager assaulting a blonde, Dutch teenager on crutches, with the erroneous caption, “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!”
In the year 1942, the Nazi pamphlet Der Untermensch accused Jews of delighting in destroying churches, with the caption, “For the Jew and inhuman the highest satisfaction comes from the destruction of churches!”
In the year 2017, the President of the United States retweeted a video of a bearded Muslim man smashing a fair-skinned statue of the Virgin Mary with the caption, “Muslim Destroys a Statue of the Virgin Mary!”
For many Americans who woke up to President Trump’s tweets Wednesday morning, these videos seemed unduly hateful, and in the case of the video of the boy on the crutches, even fraudulent. (According to Dutch authorities, the assailant was born and raised in The Netherlands.) But for researchers of propaganda, the historical parallels within the videos were more chilling than anything else. There are, they say, just two differences between the German caricatures and the President’s tweets. First, the social media age has given Trump more readers on Twitter than the Der Stürmer or Der Untermensch ever had. And second, we have no way of knowing how this chapter in history will end.
“I think this is real dangerous shit,” says David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England, who specializes in the history of dehumanization and who authored a book on the topic called Less than Human.
“This is scary shit,” echoes Jason Stanley, a professor at Yale and author of the book How Propaganda Works, whose father fled Nazi Germany in 1939.
To be clear and compliant with Godwin’s law no one is comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler. “That would be absurd,” says Smith. His concern is that the president and the general public have not learned history’s lessons about the impact this type of fear-mongering can have. That’s especially true today in the age of Facebook and Twitter-driven echo chambers, in which any headline, photo, or video can be slyly captioned or edited to distort its original meaning to comply with a group’s existing bias. The long past of propaganda blended with the communication channels of the present and future form a toxic mix.
‘I think this is real dangerous shit.’
David Livingstone Smith, University of New England
Trump’s tweets may look like an impulsive and offensive attempt to pander to the Ann Coulter-wing of the Republican party, but looked at through the long lens of history, Trump’s messaging has dangerous undertones that could be compared to propaganda tactics found in the well-worn playbook of how to demonize entire categories of humans. As forbidden as such historical comparisons are in polite society, Smith says, it’s in ignoring history altogether that societies risk falling into the time-tested trap of believing that pending mass atrocities clearly announce themselves in bright neon lighting.
“There’s always a backstory,” he explains.
It typically begins with leaders fomenting fear, specifically, by portraying a relatively powerless group as a societal threat. One of the most powerful examples of this was the portrayal of African American slaves in the antebellum south. “African Americans were the most vulnerable members of the population,” Smith says, “Yet, they were represented as violent monsters, particularly African American men, who were represented as almost super-human in the danger they posed.”
The script repeated in 1934, one year after Adolf Hitler took power, when German Jews were already being herded into the Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich. The front page of Der Stürmer featured a headline, typed out in red and underlined, which read: “Jewish Murderplan Against Gentile Humanity Revealed.”
Similarly, in Rwanda in 1993, Hutu Power propaganda magazines like Kangura ran stories accusing the Tutsi, already a persecuted people that had been driven into exile, of “evilness” and “killing, pillaging, raping girls and women.” That message was amplified by the launch of RTLM, an extremist radio station that promoted some of the most vile and violent propaganda about Tutsis. One Harvard study has since shown that the better the radio coverage was in a given area, the worse the bloodshed.
All of those examples, of course, came before Facebook and Twitter. These destructive myths and stereotypes can now be disseminated to millions of people in a matter of seconds. And it’s not simply cartoons and phony headlines filling people’s minds. Doctored photos and misrepresentations of real footage, like the video the President shared, are a dangerous new development in the history of propaganda, experts say. “Everyone knows caricatures exaggerate,” says Claudia Koonz, a historian at Duke University and author of The Nazi Conscience, “but gullible viewers, including probably Trump, see videos as reality.”
The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are the most recent and tragic victims of this trend. When the government barred ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, from preaching his anti-Rohingya messages, for fear they were driving his followers to violence, he took the message to Facebook. Now, Facebook, which has 30 million users in Myanmar, up from 2 million in 2014, has become a central repository for Wirathu’s photos, which depict crimes supposedly committed by Rohingya, some of which Facebook has removed.
Complicating matters more is the fact that, activists on both sides of the ethnic cleansing currently being waged against the Rohingya by the Myanmar Army are contributing to the misleading information being circulated on social media. People concerned about the Rohingya have shared photos depicting tragedies from other wars, misrepresented as part of this current massacre. Meanwhile, those seeking to demonize the Rohingya have disseminated archival war photos, wrongly describing them as evidence of Rohingya militarization. All of it contributes to a cloud of confusion that makes it easier for Myanmar’s leaders to claim the very real violence is being overblown.
‘What would have been horrifying a year ago is now normalized.’
Jason Stanley, Yale University
In the social media age, not only does the information travel faster, but the sheer volume of shocking images people are exposed to on a daily basis helps numb societies to the hate they’re seeing. President Trump tweeting explicitly anti-Muslim content from the leader of a British hate group, who was herself arrested recently for hate speech, has already fallen from the headlines, as issues like tax reform and the Russian meddling investigation dominate. In 2017, Trump’s tweets were just another Wednesday. That has its own frightening implications, too, historians say. “What would have been horrifying a year ago is now normalized,” says Stanley. “That’s part of the playbook, too.”
These messages don’t have to promote violence to solicit it. History indicates that dangerous rhetoric tends to sound cautionary at the outset, ringing the alarm against what the people in power deem to be a serious threat. The people who spread it, he says, think they’re “out to save the world. Their idea is to rid the world of a terrible evil.”
That, according to White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was Trump’s motivation in this case. Asked by members of the press why the president would share a video that lies about a Muslim migrant committing an act of violence, she said, “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.”
Yes. A threat so real, it could only be illustrated with lies.
The tweets the President retweeted used simple language to frame Muslims as a dominating societal menace (“Muslim destroys statue…”), despite the fact that Muslims currently make up just one percent of the US population and that, since 2001, homegrown right-wing extremists have killed nearly twice as many Americans in the US as radical Muslims have.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations immediately condemned the videos, calling them an “incitement to violence against American Muslims.” Such violence is already on the rise. Pew Research found that in 2016, a historic number of anti-Muslim assaults were reported to the FBI, more than in 2001, when anti-Muslim fervor was high.
After Trump shared those videos, pundits and politicians argued that the president’s tweets would only help ISIS recruit. Trump, they argued, seemed to be overtly confirming terrorists’ claims that America is the enemy of Islam. And yet, according to Steve Stalinsky of the Middle East Research Institute, the question isn’t what impact this video will have on ISIS, an organization so depraved it would manipulate even benign statements from the president. The question is what impact it will have on groups in the US.
“Talking heads will say this is going to help ISIS or jihadi groups with recruitment. I don’t know that that’s necessarily true,” Stalinksy says. “Recruitment for right-wing groups? That’s a different story.”
So what can be done about it? Social networks, certainly, have a role to play in preventing hate speech from spreading online—a perilous high-wire act they have not yet successfully maneuvered. But, given their reluctance to censor the President’s messages to the public, that still wouldn’t stop the man in the White House from waking up on any given morning, picking up his phone, and clicking Retweet on any selectively edited video he chooses. On Friday, even Twitter sent mixed messages about why, exactly, it’s allowing these videos to stay up. In Germany, Volksverhetzung, or incitement to hatred, has long been criminalized, and a new law there requires social media companies to remove it or face hefty fines. But in the United States, the First Amendment would inhibit such government-driven attempts at censorship. That means the power to prevent such escalating hatred quite literally rests in the president’s relentlessly tweeting hands.
President Trump wants badly to justify his plans to ban citizens from a host of primarily Islamic nations from entering the United States. Videos portraying Muslim violence—both real and fabricated—fit neatly into that story. But they also fit neatly into a much longer story of tragedy around the world. Whatever his motivation, history provides few excuses for those who fail to anticipate the damage that words and images can do.