David Aaronovitch wrote a recent article about the way the internet and sites like Wikipedia can normalize controversial ideas or mislead the unitiated student. You can find the full text here but here’s the practical example:

At the weekend I was tidying up some footnotes for my book on conspiracy theories, which is to be published next spring. In one chapter I deal fleetingly with a dead American conspiracist called Harry Elmer Barnes, and mention his affinity with/for a French Holocaust denier called Paul Rassinier. I was after a date and found it after a quick Google, but not before noticing that the Rassinier biography on Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, was a little bit odd. I let it go. Then, yesterday, I read Berners-Lee’s comments and returned to the site.

I was right – righter, in fact, than I had realised. The biography begins with what seems to be a neutral introduction, but is in fact a selective description of Rassinier as a pacifist, activist, as anti-Nazi, a former concentration camp prisoner, and then, at the end of the introduction, comments that Rassinier has “come to be remembered for his views on the Holocaust, which have caused some to call him the ‘father of Holocaust Denial’”. Note that “some”, as opposed to the positive things – pacifist, activist, prisoner – that Rassinier can be called without qualification.

What then happens is a process whereby the entry’s authors suggest a scholarly neutrality while, at the same time, normalising Rassinier’s easily refutable views on the Holocaust. For example, Rassinier believed there was no deliberate Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews and no gas chambers. And we find, in the text, some support for this view cited in the works of “Princeton historian, Arno J. Mayer”. There is a short extract from Mayer’s own book, warning readers that “sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable”, that “there is no denying the many contradictions, ambiguities, and errors in the existing sources” and that “most of what is known is based on the deposition of Nazi officials and executioners at postwar trials and on the memory of survivors and bystanders”.

It’s pretty clear what you’re supposed to take from this: that Rassinier’s argument about there being no gas chambers should be taken seriously. So I then Googled Mayer. The first thing I discovered was that exactly this selection of quotes from Mayer’s work appeared on Holocaust-denial and neo-Nazi websites. The next thing I found out was that Mayer himself is a deeply controversial historian of the period, having argued that more Jews died of diseases in the camps than were murdered, and that the extermination was more a consequence of Nazi anti-Bolshevism than of anti-Semitism. The first contention is unsupported, the second is ludicrous.

But even given that, the Mayer quote was doctored. Mayer certainly believed that the gas chambers were real and that untold thousands had been killed in the death camps, but the nature of Mayer’s qualification was withheld from Wikipedia readers. As was the fact that Rassinier’s biographer, Jean Plantin, whose work was used for much of the Wikipedia entry, was fined and given a suspended prison sentence in Lyons in 1999 for Holocaust denial. You have to go to the French edition of Wikipedia to find that out.

So it took me an instinct, one morning, three hours, and a background in this material, to realise that the Rassinier Wikipedia biography – the first item on Rassinier that appears when you search for his name – had probably been written by someone with sympathies for the Holocaust denial camp of David Irving. The uninitiated, however, would never know, for not once does this poisonous bias break cover.

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