Genocide Memorialization in the Digital Era
Rapidly changing technology enables individuals and communities to remember mass atrocities in new ways. Developments from blogs and social media to holograms, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality each permit changes in the very nature of memorialization, including simultaneously, and sometimes paradoxically, decentralizing and globalizing it.
Virtual memorialization loosens, if not shatters, the control states once possessed over memorialization in its predigital practice. It expands beyond the traditional forms like monuments, museums and archives, and so bears the prospect of fundamentally changing how and where collective memory is formed and retransmitted. Digital technology allows those processes to devolve to individuals.
As a result, new local and transnational connections emerge, sometimes reinforcing state narratives and sometimes contesting them. Meanwhile, previously marginalized voices may find a broader audience and emergent virtual communities can generate their own vocabularies as well as their own touchstones for pride, grievance and understanding.
The emergence of digital memorialization provides scholars with a new terrain to assess across the disciplines. For historians there are new opportunities to use new sources and appreciate a broader array of perspectives about the past. Political scientists might analyze emergent discourses – and discord – surrounding the past. Sociologists could study how new forms of memorialization change the way we see each other, and anthropologists might consider how these developments change who we see ourselves and, even, who we are.
The participants on this panel embrace different disciplinary approaches to the study of digital memorialization, focusing particularly on the memorialization of episodes of genocide. Representing Africa, Europe, and North America, and addressing cases pertaining to Africa, Asia, Europe, they collectively highlight some of the convergences in the practice of memorialization in the digital era while appreciating the particular patterns and nuances that emerge in different social, historical and cultural contexts.
Presentations of the Symposium
Wikipedia as a Site of Virtual Memorialization
Wikipedia is a user-curated, online encyclopedia. As such, it possesses all the ingredients to be a site of contested virtual memorialization: members of the general public who are passionate about the propagation of a certain interpretation regarding a particular historical event have the potential to contribute to the production of a seemingly authoritative narrative that becomes globally available. Of course, others with divergent interpretations of the same event have, in theory, equal access to the same process.
In this paper, I examine how contestation over the interpretation of mass atrocity events plays out over Wikipedia. I do so by examining the text and – more importantly – the contribution histories of several events that culminated, or nearly culminated in genocide. Selected events include the Biafran Secession/Nigerian Civil War, the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and the 2007-2008 Kenyan post-election crisis (as well as pages addressing memorials for each). I will address the stability of the narrative on view over time, the trajectory of narrative development, the respective contexts of competing narratives, and the strategies that authors of competing narratives appear to devise, both within a given Wikipedia page and within the broader Wikipedia environment.
Collaborative memory production through digital media: Cases from the Holocaust
The individual and micro-collective practice of digital memorialization of past genocides is increasingly available through online searching, archiving and narrating on and through digital platforms and through the use of other digital tools such like google maps, digitalized photographs and documents. Through such activities, individual and micro-collective memories are formed, reformed, and shared among survivors, descendants, and at times the wider public.
Through a description of the researching of stories of two mixed marriage German families who survived the Holocaust, I examine the roles and implications of the modes and character of information collection. In both cases, few details were available of these dark years until recently through initial chance findings on the internet, followed by further discoveries. This paper examines the emergent connections, and the transmissions that culminated in the discovery of shared histories set to the background of the COVID pandemic.
The cases demonstrate how the utilization of digital media in memorial activities fosters collaboration producing microcommunities of memory, enables new trajectories in memory transmission, potentially creates new epistemologies and perhaps even ontologies, and expands our notions of time and temporalities.
'January 7' on Cambodian Political Elites' Social Media Accounts
In Cambodia, January 7 is a public holiday commemorating the day in 1979 when Vietnamese troops alongside Khmer Rouge defectors ousted the Khmer Rouge regime from power. At the same time, it is a highly contentious day, as many Cambodians view it as the day when the Vietnamese took power and—at least for some of the most radical wings within the opposition and despite officially withdrawing their troops in 1989—never returned it, installing a puppet regime under the leadership of Heng Samrin, Chea Sim, and Hun Sen.
Using social network analysis, the presentation analyzes the discourse surrounding that day on the social media accounts of members of the Cambodian power elite. Data were collected from the Instagram and Facebook accounts of the 500 most powerful members of the government, opposition, and civil society. The presentation maintains that memorialization of that event is not necessarily politically differentiated but is socially differentiated instead—each social group within the elite has its own interpretation of the regime and the day of liberation. Moreover, the degree of anti-Vietnamese rhetoric can be explained by the varying levels of relative deprivation experienced by these power elite groups in the aftermath of the invasion.
#TogetherAsOne: Commemorating Historical Traumas during the Covid-19 Pandemic
Commemoration events involve people coming together in a specific location to perform a set of ritualistic behaviours. Embodied co-mingling and co-performance are the very essences of ’co-mmemoration.’ However, the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 forced organisations to quickly rethink plans for what would have been huge commemorative events at specific sites commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the final Nazi concentration camps and the 25th anniversary of the Bosnian Genocide.
In this paper, I explore examples of online commemorations held during the Covid-19 pandemic in order to consider the extent to which this digital shift changes the form of the ‘commemoration event’. If such events are rooted in togetherness, physical place, and ritualistic performativity, to what extent do digital commemorations, often accessed from far-away domestic spaces rather than public places, offer new ways to think about what commemoration is, and what it can be? Do they simply remediate physical events, or do they differ so much from their offline counterparts that they cease to be commemorations at all, but rather present new forms of memory practice?
Commemoration in a time of Restriction: Rwanda’s Memorialization Process During a Global Pandemic
In 2020, the global pandemic presented deep challenges to Rwandan traditions of remembrance. Memorialization and commemoration comprise a central pillar to healing and growth in the country, while forming a vital component for collective unity and remembrance of those who were lost in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. For Rwandans, memorialization ceremonies have created a time and space for communities to come together, support one another, and address current issues which afflict our country.
The inability to conduct memorialization practices in person forced Rwandans to adapt. The Commission National pour la Lutte contre le Genocide (CNLG) utilized technology to adapt to the situation and create virtual opportunities for individuals to partake in both commemorative and educational events about the Genocide. Using television and radio shows, newspaper articles, social media, continuous release of information, recorded panel discussions, and presentation to both domestic and international audiences, CNLG created a platform for people to engage in the memorialization process while adhering to safety protocols.
In this paper, I examine the gains and losses inherent in these virtual ceremonies. While they lacked the cultural atmosphere of Kwibuka and other commemoration ceremonies, they nonetheless created an opportunity to reach a wider audience as well as to engage individuals in meaningful and constructive conversations about the Genocide and current issues of genocide ideology and denial.