Mike Godwin on Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies in the Age of Trump

Mike Godwin has deep roots in Texas, where his interests in journalism and the internet began. He earned his Plan II Honors degree from the University of Texas at Austin, then returned for law school and was elected editor of The Daily Texan in the late 1980s. During that time, he came up with his now-famous adage: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."Godwin has long been on the forefront of online media. He was the first staff hire of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit founded in 1990 that focuses on defending civil liberties in the digital world, and has worked with the Wikimedia Foundation. The author and attorney has written and edited for a wide variety of publications, including Wired and Reason.Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies seems especially relevant now. President Donald Trump, whose administration has been compared to 1930s Germany, has himself wondered on Twitter, "Are we living in Nazi Germany?" Is it fair to compare Trump to Hitler?If you have substantive criticisms of Donald Trump in which you think it's relevant to bring up the Nazis or Hitler, then you have the right. I support your right to do that. But the memory of the Holocaust and the memory of the Nazis require that we should be thoughtful about it. And that's my position.The reason Godwin's Law has any currency in popular culture and on the internet is that I don't come in and decide to be the arbitrator of whether or not the comparisons are decent or not. I just don't. Because I believe fundamentally in an individual's ability to make judgments if they work at it, I'm not going to tell them what to think. They can figure out what to think, and I trust individuals' ability to do that, even though I know a lot of individuals don't exercise that.More than ever before, this election was heavily influenced by social media, including the rapid spread of fake news. Has this election changed the way you look at the internet and democracy? I take a pretty long view about this stuff. As more and more people have gotten on the internet and onto social media, and learn how easy it is to be heard and learn how easy it is to reach out to people, and even to stir other people up, I think one of the consequences of that has been more anger and divisiveness and more thoughtlessness. One way to think about this is that when teenage boys go through puberty and get taller and stronger and have more energy, they generally get into more fights. If adults got into as many fights as a 12- or 13-year-old boy, you know, we wouldn't have a society. In a way, our culture is going through its early adolescence in terms of the internet. You have this new sense of power. You have this energy, you are finally able to make yourself felt in the world, and a lot of people naturally don't have the kind of moral or ethical framework yet to be civilized about how they engage on the internet.And this is not a problem that's inherent in the internet; it's a problem inherent in human beings specifically and in cultures generally.One thing gives me some cause for optimism. There are certainly a large number of people who are quite skeptical about what they hear in the media if it just seems wrong to them. My feeling, as a current and former journalist, is that skepticism overall is a good thing. One of the things that really helped me as a journalist, and also as a lawyer, was to learn how to read anybody's reports skeptically. That's positive.But, at the same time, you also see people cherry-picking media sources that simply support their inclinations. [People believe these fake news stories] because they want to believe that the people they oppose are evil, and limitlessly evil, evil in every way you can imagine."What would you, as a journalist, advise the media and consumers of media to do about these issues?In some sense, telling everybody to be skeptical about what they read or to be self-critical about how they analyze media is a little bit like assembling a room full of fat people and telling them to eat less. It turns out not to be helpful (maybe helpful for some tiny fraction of people.) But the underlying problem is not a lack of self-discipline as such. It is a little bit, but I think what it really is, is a lack of critical thinking. I believe in public education as an important thing for government to be doing.Democracy so fundamentally depends on public education that we have to both fund it (and that means everybody, even people without children) and we also have to engage in helping people be better participants in democracy.In particular, I think one big part of public education has to be to teach people how to live as a citizen, how to function as an effective citizen inside the incredibly diverse, and sometimes overwhelming, media ecology that we are now in. Too often, people know what they want to believe, but they don't know how to question whether what they believe is true, or question the sources of their beliefs.How so you address concerns about getting accurate information from the internet?For all the people worried about the internet having a lot of incorrect information or even deliberately false information, that's true in libraries too. That's true everywhere. So, in some sense, the ability to think critically about what you read or what you encounter is an old problem.At the same time, one of positive things is that the internet, through resources like the search engines and Wikipedia, has made it almost a reflex for a lot of people to look things up. That's huge. That's a fundamental shift that's been enabled by the internet. So I'm generally hopeful about all this.When I was 19 years old, if I wanted to look something up, it was a trip. I basically had to go to the library and I had to use the card catalogue and I might have to ask the librarian and I might not find what I was looking for. It took hours to answer one question sometimes. Now, we have a whole generation of people who, by reflex, think "I can go look something up." That's a positive development. People used to not look anything up, or they'd accept uncritically what they heard in mass media or what they heard from friends. Now you have the capability to do more than that, so we have to evolve beyond that.Why should the average person care about cybersecurity and digital privacy issues?For almost all of human history, you were not normally subject to day-to-day watching by large numbers of people, who might be private companies or might be the government. You just weren't. If it were 1817 and you and I were in the same city and we wanted privacy, we would just walk around the corner in the city. Or if we were in the country, we'd walk down the road and, if nobody was within eyeshot, we were pretty sure that nobody could hear us, whatever the conversation was about. So privacy was the default setting. But that's not true anymore.The technologies that have enabled government and private companies and even other individuals to gather a lot of information about us are increasingly powerful and widely available to everyone. At the same time, there are huge social and economic forces that have driven us to use these technologies more and more, so that very, very few of us are actually off the grid. We're always engaging in stuff that leaves records that can later be reviewed. So it's not just as if we can't walk down the road anymore, it's every time we ever walked down the road was recorded somewhere and somebody could come look at it later.When we think about protecting individual privacy, and we think about limits on government, we have to realize that there is no default setting of privacy. We have to create privacy proactively and we have to create limits to government proactively, if we want privacy and we want individual autonomy.You've written before that you're "hopeful that we can prod our glib online rhetorical culture into a more thoughtful, historically reflective space." What keeps you optimistic?I believe so strongly in both the common interests we all have as citizens and in the common interests that we share with people in other countries around the world. We have to figure out ways to find common ground.I think a lot about what kind of world are we creating for my child, for other people's children. We're going to have the internet and digital media and computers with us for any future that we can foresee from here. So we have to figure out and engage in an ongoing improvement of our understanding about how these tools work, what powers they have, how can we use them helpfully, how can we use them harmfully, and we have to be attentive to that. We can't be relaxed about it.This Q&A was conducted, edited and condensed by Austin writer Mac McCann.Mike Godwin is a senior fellow with conservative Austin think tank R Street Institute. Twitter: @sfmnemonic  Continue reading...

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