Vigilantes take it upon themselves to prevent, investigate, and punish perceived wrongdoings, usually in the absence of legal authority.
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Selfies at Holocaust sites: ‘Digilantism’ on Instagram

Digilantism, a new form of internet vigilantism, involves punishing perceived wrongdoings online, with selfies at Holocaust sites facing scrutiny on Instagram.

This article has been written by third-party authors independent of The Academic. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of The Academic, and solely reflects the opinions of the article’s authors.

When we think of community “justice”, we might imagine angry villagers with pitchforks raised. This is vigilantism, and it’s been around for centuries. Vigilantes take it upon themselves to prevent, investigate, and punish perceived wrongdoings, usually without legal authority. 

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But in internet times, a new type of vigilante has emerged: the digilante. Digilantism punishes others for perceived transgressions online, with the censure happening on social media and/or via real-life contact. They act when they feel that crimes have been committed or wrongdoing has occurred. In other words, digilantes enforce social rules based on their perceptions.

Investigating digilantism holds value as it allows us to comprehend two key aspects: the process of making and enforcing social rules and people’s perceptions of those social rules. In other words, digilantism provides essential insights into social norms more broadly.

In this article, we focus on a specific site of digilantism: online surveillance and censure of people who take —and who post on Instagram— selfies that they’ve taken at two Holocaust memorial sites: the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, in Poland, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. The people taking and posting selfies on these sites tend to be young adults.

In our analysis of many hundreds of Instagram posts, we found that age, gender, lingua-cultural identity (that is: language and nationality), conventional attractiveness, photo pose/facial expression, and the captions accompanying the photos all affected the extent to which they received negative digilante comments. Specifically, we found that younger, more conventionally attractive people —especially women and people posting in English or German— attracted plenty of digilantism.

In contrast, older and less conventionally sexy selfie-takers, men, and those posting in, for example, Italian or Russian tended to be ignored. These tendencies may relate to the perceived sexualisation of young women’s bodies, specifically to the poses and/or attire of some women who choose to hold their bodies in ‘model-like’ ways. 

Another important predictor of digilante action is the selfie-taker’s captions. The digilantes pile on when these suggest a lack of serious engagement with Holocaust history and memory. Those centring themselves in arty or provocative poses, foregrounding the physical location as a cityscape while seemingly ignoring (or ignorant of?) its historical importance and meaning, are much more likely to be rebuked. In contrast, those who make some attempt to justify and even intellectualise their selfie-taking are often excused censure.

Selfie-taking and dark tourism

But why would anyone take selfies at Auschwitz or the Berlin Memorial in the first place? Indeed, why do people visit Holocaust memorial sites at all? Visiting such places is an example of dark tourism, which is travel and tourism associated with death and disaster. Selfie-taking, on the other hand, has been studied as part of a wider cultural movement linked to the routine consumption of tourism. So, whilst taking (sometimes fun, playful, even silly) selfies in places like Auschwitz is widely regarded as controversial and distasteful, we ask two questions that have not been widely discussed. First: is it better that young people engage with Holocaust sites in their way rather than not engaging? And second: are the digilantes self-centring and even virtue signalling —that is, undertaking identity work aimed at showing themselves in a positive light— through their comments, precisely as the selfie-takers do through their photos and comments?

Selfies —self-portrait photographs, usually captured on a smartphone and shared via social media—dominate expressions of tourism consumption. Indeed, selfies at tourist sites have become modern-day postcards. Why send individual postcards when dozens of digital equivalents can be sent at once, in real-time, to everyone we have ever met, and at no cost? The practice of sharing tourism images has thus come to represent a kind of visual conversation starter, drawing attention to our travel biographies via unique holiday photos. Image-centric social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have become prolific in their usage and cultural importance more generally, and they are the primary vehicles of image sharing for tourists in particular.

Vigilantes take it upon themselves to prevent, investigate, and punish perceived wrongdoings, usually in the absence of legal authority.
Credit. Midjourney

Yet, as Israeli-German artist Shahak Shapira noticed in 2017, the issue of selfie-taking and sharing where the physical context is a Holocaust memorial site adds complexity and moral panic to tourists’ everyday practices of engaging with the places they visit. Indeed, our previous research noted how a code of ethics appears to be hardening around what counts as ‘morally acceptable’ behaviour, and many visitors are deeply uncomfortable with selfies being taken in places like the gas chambers of Auschwitz or at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial in Cambodia. Yet, far from waning in popularity, the taking and sharing of selfies at dark tourism sites continue, as evidenced by the sheer volume we analysed on Instagram. And, as you would imagine, the digilante comments are often scathing.

Location is also important. While the Berlin Memorial sees plenty of ‘disrespectful’ tourist behaviour, it is rare to encounter flippant selfie-taking at Auschwitz. We suggest this because the Auschwitz Memorial Museum is a paid visitor attraction offering structured tours. It is also an iconic site familiar with film, literature, and current affairs. In contrast, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial is an art installation, always open and part of the streetscape: its purpose and meaning may not be immediately apparent. This leaves room for the possibility that some Holocaust-site selfie-taking is an innocent, playful, and accidental practice.

Why selfies shouldn’t be banned at Auschwitz

Are the digilantes right? Should selfie-taking be banned at Holocaust memorial sites? We don’t think so. We feel that the point of dark-tourism memorials is to allow visitors a space to reflect and remember and engage in their own ways. Whilst playful selfie-taking seems disrespectful, we argue that it is more important to keep alive —however clumsily and imperfectly– the memory of the more than six million people murdered during the Nazi era (predominantly Jews, but also LGBTQIA+ people, Roma people, those with disabilities, and those who helped others to flee the Nazis). Perhaps this is best done through people living their ordinary, complex, messy and often joyous lives, precisely as the Nazis’ murder victims could not.

Therefore, our research invites tourism managers at sites of atrocity —as well as visitors and would-be digilantes— to look beyond the binary of un/acceptable and consider the possibility that engagement is nuanced. Despite accumulating digilante discourses on social media, there may be no ‘correct’ way to consume Holocaust heritage. Indeed, the practices of tourism consumption more broadly are complex and are shaped not least by visitors’ cultural and demographic backgrounds.

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Journal reference

Wight, C., & Stanley, P. (2022). Holocaust heritage digilantism on Instagram. Tourism Recreation Research, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508281.2022.2153994

Dr. Craig Wight is an associate professor in the Business School at Edinburgh Napier University, and he has authored works over the last 18 years on the discourses of genocide heritage. His recent work includes a netnographic study of European Holocaust heritage visitation and a collaboration with Dr. Phiona Stanley on 'digilantism' activity on Instagram using ethnographic and discourse analysis.

Dr. Phiona Stanley is an associate professor in the Business School at Edinburgh Napier University. Her research focuses on mobilities and how people engage in 'intercultural' settings in the broadest sense, including intercultural education, working abroad, and tourism, particularly outdoor sport/leisure mobilities.