Godwin’s Law is a term first promulgated in 1990 by author and lawyer Mike Godwin.
Originally intended as a lesson in information “memetics,” or how the evolution of information spreads and evolves on the Internet, the term is used to describe the phenomenon that the longer an online discussion about politics lingers, the more likely it is that someone will make a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.
Specifically, the law reads: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches one.”
As online chatting, comment boards, and fervent political discussion increased during the 1990s and into the 2000s, Godwin’s Law has become more and more relevant.
The law is not intended to trivialize the horrific events of the World War II era, but rather to highlight the frequency and often inappropriate use of such comparisons in online debates.
Godwin from a 1994 Wired Magazine article:
In discussions about guns and the Second Amendment, for example, gun-control advocates are periodically reminded that Hitler banned personal weapons. And birth-control debates are frequently marked by pro-lifers’ insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than that of Nazi death camps. And in any newsgroup in which censorship is discussed, someone inevitably raises the specter of Nazi book-burning.
Years later, Godwin elaborated further on his own law:
It’s deliberately pseudo-scientific — meant to evoke the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the inevitable decay of physical systems over time. My goal was to hint that those who escalate a debate into Adolf Hitler or Nazi comparisons may be thinking lazily, not adding clarity or wisdom, and contributing to the decay of an argument over time.
While Godwin’s law is very well known, it’s not often the subject of mainstream conversation or reported on the news because of the obvious sensitivity of its subject matter.
Indeed, in 2017, when Godwin and his law were more openly discussed in the aftermath of the White Supremacist march on Charlottesville and the examination of the right wing fringe that followed, Godwin, who rarely speaks out, was vocal:
One of the reasons that people have ever paid attention to Godwin’s Law at all is that I have been very careful to avoid policing how people invoke it, or use it, or apply it, or misapply it, except in fairly rare circumstances. But this was a no-brainer.
In a Time Magazine article that same year, Godwin was quick to point out that all presidents have been accused of being like Hitler, proving his law true:
As far as I know, every President who has been President from the time I got on the internet has been compared by someone to Hitler. People compared President Obama to Hitler. People have forgotten there were pictures of Obama with a Hitler moustache. That talk was crazy.
While originally intended as a caution against the overuse and misuse of such comparisons, Godwin’s Law has itself become a staple of online discourse.
It serves as a reminder of the potential for discussions to escalate and deviate from reasoned debate, particularly in the often impersonal and heated environment of the
In 2013, Godwin’s Law made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.
In 2019, the U.K’s Telegraph put Godwin’s Law into its all-time list of top 10 Internet rules and laws.
Use of “Godwin’s Law” in a sentence:
- In the heat of the online political debate, one participant invoked Hitler as a comparison, thereby affirming Godwin’s Law, which predicts that such a comparison is inevitable in lengthy discussions.
- As the argument escalated on the social media thread, Godwin’s Law came into play when one user compared the other’s viewpoint to Nazi propaganda.
- The conversation was civil until someone violated Godwin’s Law, creating a polarizing atmosphere by comparing the government’s new policy to fascist ideologies.