A pawn shop owner posted a video in which he said he found photos depicting the Nanjing Massacre.
The video went viral, gaining 31 million views on TikTok.
He was criticized for posting before authenticating, and experts now say the photos aren't authentic.
A pawn shop owner is facing criticism from history buffs on social media after posting a viral TikTok video showing photos of what he said was the Nanking Massacre without first authenticating the images.
The Rape of Nanjing, or the Nanjing Massacre, was the mass killing of Chinese people by the Japanese Imperial Army between December 1937 and January 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. According to The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II by Iris Chang, the death toll of the massacre is estimated to be between 100,000 and 300,000.
Evan Kail, who posts videos about his pawn shop finds on TikTok under the username @pawn.man, posted a video on September 1, claiming to be in possession of a book with never before seen images from the massacre. Over the next week, it received nearly 25 million views. By September 23, it had more than 31 million views.
The photo album, he said, was brought in by a client whose relative, seemingly a US Navy sailor, had been stationed in Southeast Asia in the late 1930s.
"Somehow that guy who took those photos was present for the Rape of Nanking, and he took about 30 photographs that are unknown to history that are worse than anything I've ever seen on the internet," he said.
Kail said the album contained images that were too "disturbing" to show, and asked his viewers to help the video go viral so that museums could seek him out and purchase the album for historical preservation.
—Fake History Hunter (@fakehistoryhunt) September 1, 2022
A historian by the name of Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse, who runs a Twitter account named Fake History Hunter, wrote a Twitter thread saying the images were likely from the 1930s, but weren't as rare as Kail was claiming, adding that several of the photos were already online.
Teeuwisse told Rolling Stone that people should "first check with other experts or museums" before making historical claims.
Timothy Brooks, a historian specializing in China during the Japanese occupation, told The New Yorker in a September 20 article that he believed Kail's collection to be "a hodgepodge of original photographs of American sailors, souvenir prints of violence, and Chinese- and Japanese-issued propaganda shots," as at least five of the prints included Japanese inscriptions on them. Brook doesn't believe the sailor could have been in these locations and taken the photographs, and notes that one photo is a print of a public execution in Beijing that probably took place in 1904.
"The way the sailor has presented these pictures exoticizes Asia," Brook told the publication. "He's treating China and Japan as places of war and violence, and torture. Which is not to say that the photographs aren't true, but they must be properly contextualized."
Kail, who told the outlet he'd moved the book to a "secure location" and begun wearing a face mask and bulletproof vest, closed his shop to the public after a disconcerting interaction with a customer and has hired a lawyer. "I accidentally created this thing that is a point of high contention and emotion," he told the outlet.
Some commenters thanked Kail for sharing the photos and enlightening them on the atrocities of the massacre while others asked him to scan the photos digitally and post them online in order to ensure that they weren't lost to history.
Brooks said he's seen Chinese people expressing renewed anger about the event online, though "the sad irony here is that, as far as I can tell, none of these photographs are from Nanjing."
Kail originally responded to the negative comments in a TikTok video that he also shared on Twitter. In the video, he said that people had accused him of perpetuating a hoax, which he denied, and said that those who haven't seen the album themselves do not know for sure whether it's real or not.
He also tweeted to say he is currently seeking authentication from "several prestigious people" but did not clarify who they were or whether he was in touch with any historical institutions or academics.
Several days later, on September 7, however, Kail told NBC News that he now believed the photos were taken in Shanghai, not Nanjing. He did not elaborate further. Later, Kail acknowledged mistaking Nanjing Road for the Chinese capital at the outset.
"My mistake was to cry wolf," he told The New Yorker. "I should have been more cautious." He also expressed worry about returning to posting "flippant" TikToks, his preferred style for @pawn.man.
"Even if the whole book turns out to be fake, it started a productive conversation," he told the publication. "I have accidentally educated so many people about this subject … So not all is lost here."
Kail did not immediately respond to Insider's requests for comment.
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