Harsh warnings: a digital history review

New semester, new reason to use this blog! I will primarily be writing for my “Digital History” class, but I will try to write some extracurricular blog posts as I remember/am able.

It’s hard to engage with anything, much less history, while ignoring current events since the inauguration. Suddenly every topic or historical theme I read about seems like either a failed warning of what’s passed, an omen of what’s to come, or an unfair distraction. Some of these warnings or omens are coincidental, like stumbling across a documentary with a timely subject, or deliberate.

One such example of a deliberate omen is the Twitter account @Stl_Manifest, launched by the software developer Russel Neiss and Rabbi Charlie Schwartz as a direct response to Donald Trump’s executive order that places extreme limits on travel and immigration from certain countries in the Middle East, all of which have predominantly Muslim populations. The executive order most severely affects Syrian refugees, all of whom had to go through about two years of intense vetting before being granted entry into the country. The poignancy of this account comes from Trump having signed this executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The twitter account is simple: it spits out tweets that name a passenger of the St. Louis, explain that the US turned them away at a time in need, and then identify the death camp or other location where each individual was eventually murdered by Nazis or their supporters. A simple bot most likely assembled these tweets from a database from the US Holocaust Museum (USHMM), filling in as much information as was available, such as photographs of the victim. The account, which was only active on the day Trump signed the executive order (Jan 27), generated 252 tweets, most with several hundred retweets and likes.

Evaluating this project depends on the goals. As a tool to learn about the St. Louis and its passengers, the site gives little information. The profile links to USHMM’s encyclopedia article about the ship’s story, but that’s it. We also learn only their name, location of death, and occasionally what they looked like. This risks objectifying the passengers, seeing them only as their deaths. This runs counter to the approaches taken by other Holocaust museums, such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which strives to highlight and enliven the lives victims had before the Holocaust.

However, the goal of this project is not to learn about the St. Louis but to spread awareness of it, and of the US’s history of denying refugees. This account was everywhere on Friday. Everyone was retweeting this account, evoking this history while condemning the executive order. Neiss and Rabbi Schwartz were not the only ones to make this connection; major publications such as The Washington Post and The Guardian wrote articles evoking the ship’s story. However, Twitter’s condensed format lends itself to the goal of spreading awareness: it is much quicker and easier to share a single tweet than it is to read an entire news article. The tweets slip easily into one’s Twitter feed, whereas a news article linked to in a Twitter or Facebook feed would need to be opened into a separate tab. Additionally, the 140-character limit forces the tweets to be blunt and harsh, and paired with the first person language, each tweet’s message is succinct and tragic.

Twitter also lends itself to easy engagement with these stories. Many individual tweets had direct replies or were quoted, with other users sharing additional information, emphasizing the tragedy of the St. Louis, or reflecting on the timeliness of the account. However, this also offers the opportunity for users to respond inappropriately, such as commenting on the demographics of those the Nazis murdered or asserting misinformed arguments about contemporary refugees and terrorism. Twitter does not allow for irrelevant or distracting comments to be deleted, but even on a different platform, where are the limits of acceptance and curation? Steve Zeitlin asks this question about curating based on quality of writing and content in his essay, “Case Study: Where Are the Best Stories? Where Is My Story? – Participation and Curation in a New Media Age,” where he argues in part that it’s okay to delete badly written or uninformative contributions: those authors won’t care, because they most likely put little work into their submissions.[1] How does this change with inappropriate Twitter replies, where the issue is opinion, not quality, and where the replies’ authors most likely do care about what they’ve said? [2] Does the old internet adage of “Don’t feed the trolls” apply outside of forums and social media to academic/historical projects?

Since these questions don’t have easy answers, the only other part of this project that I would question is its goals: while it was certainly effective at raising awareness, I wonder if this Twitter account could have larger goals. How could this account benefit immigrants, refugees, and the current situation beyond alerting Twitter users to the issue itself? In an interview with The Atlantic, Neiss and Rabbi Schwartz mention a few other goals they have for their audience, namely for more people to visit USHMM, to donate to organizations that assist immigrants and refugees, and to continue speaking about the Holocaust the rest of the year. [3] Is there a way to do this without detracting from the tragically methodical format of the tweets?

All in all, while this project did not provide a lot of contextual information about the St. Louis, it succeeded in drawing attention to this event and its warning signals regarding current political events.

[1] Zeitlin, Steve. “Case Study: Where Are the Best Stories? Where Is My Story? – Participation and Curation in a New Media Age.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-generated World. Ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia, PA: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011. 34-43.

[2] Required clarification that “opinion” here excludes hate speech, which never has a reason to go uncensored.

[3] Norwood, Candace. “A Twitter Tribute to Holocaust Victims.” The Atlantic 27 January, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/jewish-refugees-in-the-us/514742/ 


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