Godwin's Law in the Age of Trump: The Conversation Starts With Nazis
The adage suggests that rational discussion online stops when someone invokes Hitler. What does that mean when the conversation starts that way?
Megaphone: joethegoatfarmer.com. Swastika public domain. Remix: Jason Koebler
Mike Godwin compares his internet adage to gravity: Just because you want to change it doesn't mean you can. "Godwin's Law,"—as he called it way back in 1990—has been proven more or less inalienable over the course of nearly three decades: "As an internet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."
For years, Godwin's Law has meant that the moment Nazis are invoked in an online discussion or flamewar, all hopes for rational discourse are over. A 1999 Usenet FAQ sums it up nicely:
But in our current political climate, Godwin's Law starts to sound quaint. If you spend any significant amount of time in political subreddits or on Twitter, you may have noticed that people are quick to get loose with the Nazi talk.
I called up Godwin, a 60-year-old lawyer who is currently working on net neutrality for the R Street Institute think tank, to talk about whether we may be seeing a bizarre convergence between Moore's Law and Godwin's Law: Are we speeding toward a world where all conversations start with Nazis and spiral elsewhere?
Though Godwin's Law is simple, he says that when he first published it on Usenet, it was something he had spent a lot of time considering as he was studying the Nuremberg Trials and the horror of the Holocaust in law school.
"When the feedback loop is shorter, it's like increasing the clock speed of your computer—conversations are doing the same thing they always did, but it's happening faster."
"I was seeing all these Hitler comparisons in my hobbyist life as one of the first generations of people to routinely get online," Godwin told me. "I thought, 'What can one person do to change the tenor of the discussion?' I thought, 'I won't scold them, I'm going to describe it as if it's an objective, deterministic phenomenon and i'll use pseudoscientific or mock scientific language to frame it.'"
"Whenever people are making glib, frivolous and unsupportable hitler comparisons, [Godwin's Law] would just suggest they're obeying the laws of entropy," he added. "Well, no one wants to hear that they're acting reflexively—they want to think that they have free will."
In practice, though, creating Godwin's Law didn't make it any less true: Scroll through any extremely long discussion on just about any forum and you'll see many flamewars that devolve into Nazi name calling. Scroll through Twitter and you'll see people shamelessly bring up Hitler and Nazis essentially unprovoked. So Godwin's Law holds true, but the shamelessness of social media also means we're seeing the Nazi comparisons come out much quicker than we may have in the past.
"The Hitler comparisons are the same way are the horn honkers who find something satisfying about leaning on the horn all the time"
"I never tried to make Godwin's Law a conversation ender," Godwin said. "We're a phone call right now—at some point it will end and we know it'll end and that's the end of the call. Online, there's no obvious hanging up, so some discussions can go on for a long time. With the internet and especially smartphones and Twitter, the feedback loop is shorter. When the feedback loop is shorter, it's like increasing the clock speed of your computer—conversations are doing the same thing they always did, but it's happening faster."
We're also seeing a culture that has siloed itself online in ways early internet users may not have expected. For the first 25 years of the internet, single-subject forums based on highly specific interests were one of the main ways people interacted online. Even if your politics didn't necessarily align, members of the Grateful Dead Usenet group could at least find common ground in their love of Jerry Garcia; likewise, sports forums are often some of the most civil places to find politics discussions because relationships are built over the course of years and posters can always fall back on their mutual fandom.
"You just proved Godwin's Law" is no longer a giant STOP sign
The funneling of online communities to general-interest and anything-goes sites like Reddit, 4chan, and especially Twitter have paradoxically given us less to talk about with the endless streams of usernames and avatars we're subjected to. Disagree with a tweet? Fuck 'em, they're a Nazi or a liberal snowflake. And when everyone is a Nazi, well, then the actual Nazis feel like they have less to lose by publicly identifying as one.
"There are aspects of our culture including racism, xenophobia, and fascism that have always been around but that we're more aware of because those people feel empowered to speak," Godwin said. "It's kind of a culture of honking your horn. I see people who are diehard supporters of the president calling people snowflakes, which is not a reasoned argument, it's just to upset people. I think the Hitler comparisons are the same way—those people are the horn honkers who find something satisfying about leaning on the horn all the time."
There's no easy way to form a unified theory of Godwin's Law in the age of Trump and the alt-right. But two things appear to be true: Godwin's Law still holds in 2017. And it's becoming increasingly trivial to call someone a Nazi online, to the point where "you just proved Godwin's Law" is no longer a giant STOP sign—it's just another tweet in your feed.