Thursday, July 26, 2018

Denying the denialists

Should online platforms ban users who deny the facts of the Holocaust? Yes, says Johannes Breit in Slate on July 20. His article "How One of the Internet’s Biggest History Forums Deals With Holocaust Deniers" makes important points.

Every day, the AskHistorians subreddit where Breit is a volunteer moderator deletes "content that is racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic in nature and ban[s] the offending users from commenting in our forum," he explains. Such repeated engagements reveal Holocaust denial as "a form of political agitation in the service of bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism. It has also taught us a lot about the strategy of Holocaust deniers online and that the only effective way to stop them from spreading hate and lies is to refuse to give them a platform."

Allowing someone to challenge established historical fact and waiting for them to explicitly endorse violent acts before banning their speech is not a good policy. The Nazi ideology is inherently violent, he explains, and thus: "Any attempt to make Nazism palatable again is a call for violence." Holocaust deniers' agenda is "to make the ideas of the Nazis socially acceptable." It is difficult — and irrelevant — for moderators to assess each speaker's personal intent or attitude. The speech will be received by someone as a rationalization of Nazism.

Holocaust deniers' self-identification as "revisionist" historians is "a rhetorical smoke grenade" because they do not seriously reinterpret the work of real historians but essentially make up new lies. They use

"the technique known as 'just asking questions' — in internet parlance, 'JAQing off.' Designed to further Holocaust deniers’ aim of spreading their talking points, this involves (a) framing a denialist talking point in the form of a good-faith question and (b) calling for 'open debate.'"

Their questions omit "crucial context" and "are designed to call often minor details into question and to create doubt among readers less familiar with the history of the Holocaust."

"Deniers need a public forum to spread their lies and to sow doubt among readers not well-informed about history. By convincing people that they might have a point or two, they open the door for further radicalization in pursuit of their ultimate goal: to rehabilitate Nazism as an ideology in public discourse by distancing it from the key elements that make it so rightfully reviled — the genocide against Jews, Roma, Sinti, and others."

He quotes Deborah Lipstadt's criticism in her book Denying the Holocaust of the assumption that open debate, that is, the "light of day," will eventually stop people from lying. Lipstadt wrote that "Light is barely an antidote when people are differentiate between arguments and blatant falsehoods." Breit says that the deniers' factual errors are not accidental but deliberate. He claims: "Conversation is impossible if one side refuses to acknowledge the basic premise that facts are facts. This is why engaging deniers in such an effort means having already lost."

"It takes them little effort to formulate a wrong assertion, but it takes historians a long time and a lot of words to refute one. Our early attempts to engage on these points have shown that length and nuance do not play well on the internet and do not interest the deniers. The point of JAQing off is not to debate facts. It’s to have an audience hear denialist lies in the first place. Allowing their talking points to stand in public helps sow the seeds of doubt, even if only to one person in 10,000."