Truth Decay and Holocaust Ignorance

Thursday, 05 Nov 2020


The most shocking headline I have read recently was: Nearly two-thirds of US young adults unaware 6m Jews killed in the Holocaust.

According to Harriet Sherwood’s article in the Guardian (16 September, 2020) ‘Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, or had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. One in eight (12%) said they had definitely not heard, or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust. More than half (56%) said they had seen Nazi symbols on their social media platforms and/or in their communities, and almost half (49%) had seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online’.


The level of ignorance is deeply disturbing as it reminds us of George Santayana’s, (The Life of Reason, 1905) maxim: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is shocking but hardly surprising. Why is this happening?

Generation Z might be great at copying and pasting, but they are not the best managers of their own learning (Kirschner and van Merrienboer, 2015) as it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. ‘Prior knowledge largely determines how we search, find, select, and process (i.e., evaluate) information found on the web and the Googlification of education strips students of core knowledge’. As true as this is, it presupposes that young people can ascertain ‘truth’ and find knowledge that is not fabricated. 


There is an insidious ‘cultural climate change’ occurring of which we are barely aware but which is having a corrosive influence on learners (and societies). The complete fabrication of knowledge, the relativisation of truth, fabrication of conspiracy theories and the egregious polarisation of views have all contributed to the cultural shift occurring wherein it seems at times that many young people and adults are disengaging and seem more interested in TikTok or Instagram than reading. 


Not to mention the lure and appeal in flirting with ideas promulgated by lunatic fringe groups such as QAnon (a wide-ranging, unfounded conspiracy theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media) theories. When this is your media and news focus of attention why would it be so shocking a statistic when trying to comprehend the depths of Holocaust ignorance? 


Sadly, most of us would have no idea if what we are seeing or reading is a form of ‘synthetic media’. Synthetic media is a term that describes how humans and machines are collaborating to make media that is, on one hand, exciting and innovative, and on the other, disturbing and ethically ambiguous.

News feeds are determined by the analytics of artificial intelligence and are designed to give you exclusively filtered truth. Worse still, like a Deliveroo driver, news and history comes packaged and custom-made to us (just like a favourite pizza) based on our covertly analysed history of viewing habits. This can lead many to live in a silo or the classic ‘echo chamber’ of one-sided, false information and infotainment that perpetuates ignorance. It is actually easy to live in a different knowledge orbit to the next-door neighbour. Hence, it should not be surprising that so many people have not heard of the holocaust or have a distorted view of history. These are sins of omission as much as commission. 


To add to this dilemma, studies done by the National Literacy Trust show that more young people than ever are reading less frequently than in the past. Only a quarter of under 18 year-olds read each day. This means that most find their information in other ways and these ways are often determined by AI which ultimately ensures you read only that which conforms to your prejudicial perspective. 


When we have political polarisation, information warfare, the decoupling of power and responsibility and little distinction between platforms and publishers you have a ready-made recipe for disaster.  The Pew Research Centre (Oct 19, 2017) says: Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. For every fact there is a counter fact and all these counter facts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.’

Much of the manipulation of truth (which young people are either oblivious to or incapable of determining) is being exploited by leaders around the world. Even the declaration that something is ‘fake news’ is itself so often, an intentional falsification. The fake news ecosystems are now so prevalent and so reinforcing of the echo chambers in which young people live that it is suffocating the democracies and their learning institutions. At some point, governments will have to fund and support the production of objective, accurate information and it will have to prioritise information literacy as a major goal of education. 


Unless we do so, the quality and veracity of information online will continue to deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, sometimes even dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas, histories and ‘facts’ and these destabilising influences will replace historical truths for good. 


As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.” This was very prescient and to be honest, summarises the problem we have created. 


Michiko Katutani (Guardian July 2018) in her article The Death of Truth, writes “the term “truth decay” has joined the post-truth lexicon that includes such now familiar phrases as “fake news” and “alternative facts”. And it’s not just fake news either: it’s also fake science (manufactured by climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, who oppose vaccination), fake history (promoted by Holocaust revisionists and white supremacists), fake Americans on Facebook (created by Russian trolls), and fake followers and “likes” on social media (generated by bots)”.

With so many young people being ignorant of the Holocaust we should be concerned and it should be one of our highest priorities in Education to protect truth in and of knowledge because “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Martin Luther King Jr.

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