Hitler? There’s an App for That
Developers are creating Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini iPhone apps that offer little more than propaganda. And Apple’s gatekeepers approve them.
“People create popular history online that’s more fractured and doesn’t have a lot of truth to it,” she said. “But people aren’t really interested in history—they’re trying to create an identity about themselves, their politics. Public space in Russia is still semi-authoritarian, so people find space online.” Without other outlets for processing memory and trauma, she said, the Stalin apps make a lot of sense.
The experience of “iMussolini” is instructive. When it was first released in the Italian iTunes store, it became the country’s second-most popular app, reaching 1,000 daily downloads. Jewish groups, Holocaust survivors, and the Young Italian Communists were quick to protest. The 25-year-old who developed the app was quoted defending free speech in a smattering of news stories, and the app was pulled, ostensibly for copyright violations. But within a few weeks, it was re-approved and forgotten. That was two years ago. Just a few weeks ago, I downloaded “iMussolini” in under two minutes, for 99 cents.
A commenter in La Reppublica best captured the confused response to the apps, writing, “This is really a flabbergasting phenomenon, especially when you consider that the iPhone has gained cult status for the Facebook and Web 2.0 generation. These aren’t nostalgic old people and historians of the fascist era but kids and young adults who spend time and money on the Internet and get their information from it.”
All this raises uncomfortable questions about our relationship with the Apple Mothership—the private company that’s increasingly replacing, or mediating, our public spaces and mundane daily transactions. When controversy arises, it’s an ugly reminder that we are consumers, not citizens. (Apple did not respond to interview requests.) And it’s also a reminder of the immediacy of new technology and its consequences. After all, we’ve had 65 years to discuss whether Mein Kampf should be on the library shelf.
In the smartphone world, our librarians and academics have been replaced by developers, who may lack doctorates but have plenty of coding know-how and access to Wikipedia. The result is that we can now simply download “Stalin” and begin reading his body of work. And the apps reveal a smorgasbord of interests, from dictators to yoga. Take the developer of “HD Adolf Hitler,” whose 32 other encyclopedic apps include “Life to Jesus,” “HDnostrodamus,” “HD Pearl Harbor,” “Biological Warfare HX,” as well as offerings on nail disease, sharks, obesity, and one called, instructively, “Kinds of Birds.”
In interviews, Luigi Marino, who developed “iMussolini,” has said of his controversial subject: “It’s a delicate page in our history that should never be forgotten. … The app does not intend to encourage violence in any way.” You can almost hear the shrug. At best, perhaps he’s just too naive to understand why people might take issue; at worst, he seems cavalier about the protests of Holocaust survivors whose objections he doesn’t even acknowledge. Though he did later release “iGandhi” as a sign, he said, of goodwill, it was followed by “Hitler” and “iStalin,” and more recently, “iSilvio!” poking fun at Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
“iMussolini” sits now at about 200 monthly downloads, and Marino’s other apps, which are free, generate a couple hundred daily. He now claims that he continued developing his dictator line of apps, rather than for Gandhi and his ilk, because “these characters are interesting from a historical perspective.” The controversy and resulting attention probably didn’t hurt his sales.
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