100 years ago yesterday — on July 29, 1921 — Adolph Hitler was elected leader of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party, later known as the Nazi Party. The combustible Army corporal succeeded the party’s original leader, Anton Drexler, whom Hitler originally been sent to spy on, but whose ideas he came to admire (he may even have shaved his mustache to emulate his predecessor). The 533-1 delegate vote set in motion a series of events that would dominate the next two and a half decades of world history.
A young Jewish Internet commentator named Manny Marotta wanted to call attention to the date, for educational purposes. Marotta has been maintaining popular accounts on both Twitter and Instagram called 100 Years Ago Live. His simple, clever, and enlightening mission is to describe history as an actual contemporary might have, in the language of modern social media tools. It’s popular, earning 26,000 followers on Twitter.
Marotta’s accounts remind us that the past was once news, that stories we now remember as ossified, fixed narratives captured in black and white were once fresh, suspenseful events, that filled contemporaries with excitement, and uncertainty.
Whether it’s a snapshot of a socialist congress in Lille, France that at the time might have seemed the beginning of a global Western revolution, or a cartoon showing both sides of the prohibition debate that showed how extremes of opinion dominated discourse even back then, Marotta has a nice touch for putting readers in the mood of the era, while keeping our thoughts in the present. He is very much the opposite of a Nazi or a fascist, and posts about history in the hope that people will learn from it. “I have a step-grandmother who’s a Holocaust survivor,” he says. “That’s part of the reason I started the account.”
His Instagram post on Hitler’s ascension to the status of leader of the Nazi Party looked like this:
A tweet marking the same event appeared as follows:
There is no politicking or advocacy observable here, not as standalone posts and still less in the context of hundreds of other entries about other scenes as disparate as Thomas Edison taking a nap under a tree, a woman on Tremont Street in Boston turning heads by wearing pants, or a Soviet ship shelled in the Russian Civil War.
Nonetheless, Instagram pulled Marotta’s post on Hitler’s election, saying it violated “community guidelines.” When he appealed the decision, the rejected him again, saying his content went against their guidelines on “violence or dangerous organizations”:
Since the beginning of the “content moderation” movement, a major problem has become apparent. Human beings simply create too much content on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for other human beings to review. Machines have proven able to identify clearly inappropriate content like child pornography (though even there the algorithms occasionally stumbled, as in the case of Facebook’s removal of the famous “Running Girl” photo).
But asking computer programs to sort out the subtleties of different types of speech — differences between commentary and advocacy, criticism and incitement, reporting and participation — has proven a disaster. A theme running through nearly all of the “Meet the Censored” articles is this problem of algorithmic censorship systematically throwing out babies with bathwater.
Whether it’s YouTube cracking down on videographer Ford Fischer for covering events involving Holocaust deniers or white supremacists, the same platform zapping footage of the January 6th riots shot by Jon Farina of Status Coup, or Matt Orfalea being punished for violating a “criminal organizations policy” for a spoof coffee commercial involving a mass-murderer, Internet carriers have consistently shown they cannot or will not distinguish between, say, being a Nazi and criticizing one, joking about one, even warning about one.
The frightening thing about the 100YearsAgoLive incident is that it’s not hard to see this becoming a trend, where history itself is deemed to violate common decency. The whole idea of historical education is to prevent future horrors via graphic warnings from the past. Survivors of the Holocaust have always been adamant that we must “Never Forget,” that places such as Auschwitz must never be buried or hidden away but instead displayed prominently, made into lasting cultural artifacts whose purpose is to be so conspicuous as to prevent the natural human impulse to whitewash our sadly expansive history of evil.
In the name of combating hate speech, violence, conspiracy theory, etc., Internet platforms are removing not just advocacy, but knowledge, in a wide-ranging effort that may help the companies create a more frictionless, commercially successful product, but will impede the past from chastening the present. If the aim is preventing the spread of hateful ideas, nothing could be more counter-productive that cleaning away the record of their real-world impact.
This 100YearsAgoLive episode seems like a silly glitch at first, a parody of Internet censorship, but it’s no joke — if we’re going to put machines in charge of cleaning our mental universes, the past is going to be one of the first casualties.
I reached out to Marotta:
TK: Can you tell us a little about the idea behind “100 Years Ago Live”?
Marotta: I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh two years ago. While there, in January 2018, I became interested in WWI history and decided to create a Twitter account that would “live-tweet” the events of the final year of WWI, as if I was a reporter on the ground. While there are certainly Twitter accounts that deal with historical subjects, none put themselves in the first-person, and act as if they are experiencing history, and so I decided to do that.
The account caught on and many people enjoyed the format. Its mission is to provide historical education in a fun and engaging way. I have had to report on some sensitive subjects. Most notably, this past May/June, there occurred the anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. I took care to do thorough research on the subject and report on it in real-time with the utmost objectivity and respect for the victims. There was no censorship of this reporting.
Yesterday’s tweet/Instagram post was the first time in which the social media platform removed the post, accusing it of promoting hate. Hitler’s rise to power is, of course, one of the hallmark historical events of the 1920s and 1930s, and I intend to cover it often. This will be difficult if I cannot post the man’s name and image in any place.
TK: What happened yesterday?
Marotta: The purpose of this account is to provide historical education by reporting events from 100 years ago in real time. With that said, we espouse no extremist nor hateful views, even if they were expressed 100 years ago. 100 years ago yesterday, Adolf Hitler was made Führer of the Nazi Party. We reported on this story with the same caption for both Twitter and Instagram, explaining that Hitler had become Fuhrer and a little background information. There was no hateful imagery or view espoused in reporting on this objective fact. Within 20 minutes, Instagram took down the photo of Hitler, with the note that the post promoted hate speech and extremism. Given that it was literally a photograph of Hitler with the caption that he was made Führer, I appealed the decision. They struck it down once again.
TK: Do you think this was a human being making a decision, or a machine?
Marotta: This appears to be a result of an algorithm failing to distinguish between images used in an educational context, and images used in a hateful context. I believe that no human reviewed my case, and that the algorithm blindly struck it down because of the word “Hitler” and a depiction of the man.
TK: What do you think the rationale behind this kind of moderation is? If you have any idea, what’s your opinion on this brand of speech regulation?
Marotta: I believe that Instagram does this to protect their advertising viability, and because they cannot moderate each and every case, an automatic algorithm is applied. However, this serves as a detriment to historical education. I am Jewish, and Holocaust education is vital to my beliefs system. If I cannot provide context on Hitler’s rise to power, then Holocaust education becomes difficult.
TK: Can history violate “community guidelines”?
Marotta: There are certain situations in which I could understand a decision like that. If you had a violent or gratuitous image from the past, I could perhaps understand… But there is no situation in which you can justify suppressing just the image of a human being who happened to be an evil dictator. That is censorship of education itself.
Algorithms aren't our problem. The tech giants aren't really our main problem either.
Our big problem is that a large portion of the population no longer believes in free speech, and that portion skews young. And journalists--journalists!!!--are among the worst.
That's what enables the gradual strangulation of free speech.
I'm getting old, but I don't even know how to argue with these people. How can they not see how stupid this is, how it will certainly lead to disaster?
It's like trying to persuade people that oxygen is necessary.
The answer is yes, depending on who gets to set "community standards" Censorship of history is a goal of all tyrants.
Even though this instance can be blamed on an algorithm, what of the recent destruction and defacement of hundreds of historical statues and monuments by (corporate sponsored) radical activists? How about the "1619 Project" invading our classrooms and replacing history with racist propaganda? How about the widespread alteration of thousands of entries in Wikipedia and other digital reference works? How about the disappearance of videos and research articles which disagree with a mainstream narrative from platforms and search engines? These are examples of the ongoing effort to control information. Sadly for most of us, "community standards" is a vague enough term to rationalize an Orwellian level conformity.