Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
“As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.” Thus states Godwin’s law, also known as Godwin’s law of Nazi analogies, named after Mike Godwin, an American attorney and writer (and Future Tense contributor). Godwin articulated his rule in 1990, in the early days of the internet, after noticing that Nazi references had gotten out of hand on Usenet newsgroups and bulletin board systems.
More than 30 years later, Godwin’s Law is still popular. It’s the subject of its own entries on Wikipedia and the Oxford English Dictionary, featured everywhere from PBS to Know Your Meme. It persists because it does double duty. On the one hand, Godwin’s Law is a somewhat-whimsical reminder that internet conversations can escalate quickly. At the same time, it warns against making casual comparisons to the horrors of the Holocaust. Don’t invoke the ultimate reference to evil in vain. The moment in the debate when someone glibly calls their ideological opponent a “Nazi” is what the French call “the Godwin point.”
But recent academic research makes a bold claim: Godwin’s law does not work in practice. The study’s authors reviewed a sampling of nearly 200 million Reddit posts and found that references to “Hitler” and “Nazis” did not occur with a high degree of frequency. In fact, after a certain point, the probability of observing these words actually decreased.
That’s a counterintuitive outcome, to say the least. Based on the abundance of literature comparing Trump’s presidency to fascist regimes, or the way Fox News commentators link Anthony Fauci to Nazi doctors, not to mention troubling coverage of a neo-Nazi resurgence in Germany, one would expect that online Hitler comparisons would unfortunately be on the rise.
That’s not the case, according to the research. As the study’s authors put it, the Reddit results “suggest that it is not inevitable that conversations eventually disintegrate into reductio ad Hitlerum.” Godwin’s law is nearly as old as the internet itself, but does this study show that it is dead?
Dariusz Jemielniak, one of the study’s authors, said in an email that killing Godwin’s law was not his goal. What he wanted instead was to test it, something that at first seemed impracticable. The project began with Jemielniak and colleagues relaxing in a garden, chatting about vocabulary in online communities—typical behavior for their group of data scientists, apparently—when he mentioned that Godwin’s law could theoretically be testable if only they could find a large enough data set. According to Jemielniak, Gabriele Fariello, a statistician who teaches at Harvard, said, “Hold my beer,” and they were off.
The authors focused on the top 12 subreddits (including r/AskReddit, r/politics, and r/The_Donald) in 2018, representing 15 percent of all Reddit posts that year. What they found was that the percentage of threads that reference “Nazi” or “Hitler” starts at less than 2 percent, then creeps up to 10 percent as the conversation lengthens to about 20 posts before declining at a conversation depth of about 35 posts. If Nazi or Hitler is not seen before a depth of 100 posts, there was a less than 1 in 10,000 chance (0.01 percent) that these words would be introduced later, and the probability kept dropping the longer the thread continued. At no point, however, did the percentage of posts containing these words reach even 12 percent, which is far short of the 100 percent described by Godwin’s Law.
Jemielniak sees the findings as evidence of vocabulary echo chambers. “Popular threads develop intrinsic behavioral norms and informal vocabularies or lexicons, which become narrower and narrower,” he told me in an email. In other words, these long internet conversations began stabilizing. New words like Nazi were unlikely not because they are shocking, but because fewer new words were entering the conversation overall.
Reasonable minds can quibble over the methodology of the study and about whether Reddit is representative of the wider internet. Perhaps Nazi references are more common on larger social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where conversations are not monitored by Reddit’s community of volunteer moderators. Then again, research shows that social media conversations on these sites are generally shorter, with individual topics receiving briefer intervals of collective attention. Under this interpretation, Hitler and Nazi references are rare because internet conversations no longer last long enough for someone to make them.
But the fundamental question here might be whether Godwin’s law was ever intended as a statement about observable reality. Consider the language of Godwin’s law: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.” It appears to take the form of a physical law, similar to the laws of thermodynamics, a precept that’s immovable and ironclad. But upon closer inspection, it’s phrased in a way that contrary results can always be explained away. Well, what if the discussion picks up later? What if, under the surface, the probability is creeping up? The Nazi reference might be just around the corner …
Godwin studied philosophy in the Plan II program at University of Texas–Austin, where he read Karl Popper’s writings on science, pseudoscience, and falsifiability. There’s a Popper-esque reading of Godwin’s law in which the rule is deliberately pseudoscientific, importing probability talk in order to seem mathematical while being deliberately vague on the details so as never to be decisively disproved.
That’s a view Godwin himself seems to support. Back in 2015, when commentators were writing about fascist tendencies in candidate Donald Trump, Godwin’s law was having another moment. At the time, Godwin penned an op-ed for the Washington Post where he noted that he had originally framed his law as a “pseudo-mathematical probability statement” designed to hint that most people who brought Nazis into a debate weren’t being thoughtful and independent. Nonetheless, Godwin was careful to state that Nazi comparisons weren’t always out of bounds so long as they were well-considered and showed real awareness of history. As Godwin put it, “Sure, call Trump a Nazi. Just make sure you know what you’re talking about.’
One interpretation is that Godwin’s law might be the victim of its own success. Thousands of Reddit posts refer to Godwin’s law, indicating that a sizable portion of the community is familiar with the rule. It’s possible that moderation and downvoting of Hitler/Nazi comparisons has reduced their incidence.
The authors of the new study viewed their literal treatment of Godwin’s law as a tribute to the idea. “We’re all huge fans of Godwin’s Law and what it tells about the human condition,” Jemielniak tweeted. As far as tributes go, what stands out to me is the cleverness of Godwin’s original construction. To those who are familiar with it, Godwin’s law often functions as a mental pop-up message, similar to Facebook and Twitter when they ask if you really want to post that. It’s mimetic and interstitial, occupying the space just before posting: Should I really bring in Nazis? Godwin’s law has lasted for so long precisely because of its form, which hints that the comparer may be acting as mindlessly as the laws of physics. But critically, this notion is implicit, not explicit. Because if Godwin’s law just chided people, it would likely make things worse.