A controversial law about Poland's role in the Holocaust shows how Google serves up different versions of history.
Earlier this week I got a firsthand lesson in how Google will give me one version of history when I ask for it, and force feed me another if it's paid to do so. I was watching some YouTube on my phone in bed on Sunday night when I was served the following pre-roll ad:
The Polish Prime Minister's video, which at the time of writing has more than 11 million views, might seem like a trailer for an upcoming World War II-themed first person shooter, but it's actually a video promoting Poland's controversial "Holocaust law." The law, among other things, criminalizes the use of terms such as "Polish death camps" when referring to German death camps in occupied Poland, like Auschwitz and Treblinka.
The Polish Prime Minister is right that the term "Polish death camps" can be misleading and offensive to Polish people. Auschwitz and other camps in Poland were a German enterprise, as was the final solution in general, which systematically exterminated 6 million Jews in Europe before Nazi Germany was defeated. Poland is also right that many Polish citizens sheltered Jews at risk to their own lives. Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center estimates that Poles saved the lives of 30,000-35,000 Jews.
However, the law's sweeping language also whitewashes and minimizes the collaborative role that Polish people and institutions played during the Holocaust.
“Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts,” the law reads, “that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes—shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”
YouTube told me in an email that it doesn't comment on individual campaigns or advertisers, but that it does have a strict set of advertising policies, and when it becomes aware of ads that are not compliant it immediately disapproves them. The ad was served to me again a day after I first contacted YouTube, so I can only deduce that this ad does not violate policy.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that content created by the Polish Prime Minister's Office is also being served as sponsored content on Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
As many historians have noted, including more than a dozen Polish historians in an open letter published in The Guardian, the law "assumes the Poles’ complete innocence, framing them as the only guiltless nation in Europe," which was not the case.
"As German forces implemented the killing, they drew upon some Polish agencies, such as Polish police forces and railroad personnel, in the guarding of ghettos and the deportation of Jews to the killing centers," the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website says. "Individual Poles often helped in the identification, denunciation, and hunting down of Jews in hiding, often profiting from the associated blackmail, and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property."
Even after the war, the Polish people persecuted Jews, most horrifically in the Kielce Pogrom of 1946, when "a mob of Polish soldiers, police officers, and civilians murdered at least 42 Jews and injured over 40."
That ads for Poland's Holocaust law don't violate YouTube's policy is not surprising. The ad does not qualify as Holocaust denial, which YouTube flags as "inappropriate or offensive." However, it is a great example of how Google's products are often at odds with themselves.
I was most likely served the ad because I spent the previous day Googling the subject. I saw another story about the Holocaust law in my feed and did some research. Sure enough, I ended up with reputable sources like The New York Times, The Guardian, and several non-profits that led me to the work of well-respected historians on this subject, including Hava Dreifuss and Jan Grabowski. I asked Google a question and it directed me to deep, meaningful, nuanced information.
But a few hours later I was hit over the head with an ad that claimed everything I just read was bullshit.