No one wakes up one morning and starts denying genocide. Holocaust deniers themselves understand they're engaged in a longer-term propaganda campaign. They don't have to sell the whopping lie upfront. They plant the smallest seed of doubt now; they'll water it later.
This drip, drip, drip of denial is core to their strategy of rehabilitating and legitimizing Nazism as an ideology, towards their goal of winning people over to their agenda of anti-Semitism, racism and hatred. To spread hate and indoctrinate, they exploit platforms that give them any opening.
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently remarked, "I don’t think [Holocaust deniers] are intentionally getting it wrong," adding that only "if a post crossed the line into advocating violence or hate against a specific group" would it be removed, he was playing directly into deniers’ hands.
As historians and moderators of the largest public online history forum, the subreddit AskHistorians, we confront Holocaust deniers every day. Experience has led us to only one possible conclusion: Giving them a voice is playing a game where they make the rules.
It is no coincidence that deniers have been welcomed with open arms in the "post-truth" alt-right community. Deniers depend on the distortion of historical evidence and outright lies. They cry out "Free speech!" and "Open discussion!" when it is caught.
But about this historical period, there is no "if," no "but": Holocaust denial is a malicious movement to stoke hatred and violence. For Internet communities to fight them means denying them the first word, the last word, and any word at all.
At AskHistorians, we have become experts in instantly spotting deniers by their predictable strategies. We know the first tactic: a "question" that restates a common denialist talking point, adding, "I of course don’t believe this, but what do historians think?" Pushback is met with wounded outrage and the exclamation, "Hey, I’m just asking questions!"
The deniers’ work is already done. Someone reading this question might think, "Yeah, what do historians think about that?" A fact becomes a question, a question becomes a doubt, doubt becomes denial.
Second, denialists shift the frame of reference. They query the death rate in Auschwitz, the 17 million killed by Nazi persecution in total. What about the science? How does modern medicine benefit from Mengele’s experiments? (If it needs to be restated - not at all). How did scientists develop Zyklon-B? Deniers want us thinking about numbers and disembodied facts, not the systematic extermination of people. They want us to disengage.
Third, the "scattergun" approach blasts an audience with an unending avalanche of propaganda. Individual points are easily debunked, but in bulk will exhaust even the most dedicated historians.
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For a popular online community like ours, we have identified only one feasible strategy. We counter, but do not engage. We accept even the most uncomfortable questions if they are asked in good faith, but refuse to host disingenuous "debate." Deniers only need people to think "both sides" have enough merit to be at the table. We reject this claim to legitimacy.
We find two major tactics to be the most effective. First, we educate. We know the danger in leaving suspicious but borderline questions unanswered, an emptiness that can be exploited. We reply to every suspicious question with a prewritten 1,600-word refutation of denialism
We know it won’t change the deniers’ minds, but it will reach the curious reader.
As for the clear deniers? Even with the facts clearly against them, deniers keep pushing their insidious agenda. They "misunderstand" counter-arguments, ignore what they can’t refute, and spin out lies. They drag on the conversation so as many people as possible will read it. They don’t need to make a single historically accurate point. They just need people to think they could.
To stop deniers cold, we remove their posts and ban them from posting again. The only way to fight is to deny the deniers a voice at all.
In her 1993 book "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory," historian Deborah Lipstadt wrote:
Those who care not just about Jewish history or the history of the Holocaust but about truth in all its forms, must function as canaries in the mine once did...But unlike the canary, we must not sit silently by waiting to expire...We must educate the broader public and academe about this threat and its historical and ideological roots. We must expose these people for what they are.
How much more pressing is this charge in 2018, when the canaries are the same size but the coal mine is the entire online world at one’s fingertips?
We are historians entrusted with illuminating the truths of the past. We are public historians with a moral imperative to bring that knowledge to our communities by teaching these truths, by refuting the lies, by never giving liars a chance in the first place. And we are moderators of a public forum who have the power to do just that.
We must not, we will not, and we cannot give a voice to deniers. Holocaust denial is bad history, built on hatred and aimed at violence. It has already aided the rise of the alt-right that threatens our present. To grant it a voice is to imperil the future as well.
Cait Stevenson is a Ph.D student in medieval history in the U.S. She is a moderator of and writer for the AskHistorians forum on Reddit, and also writes for medievalists.net. Twitter: @askhistorians and @sunagainstgold
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