The Story: A new survey on Holocaust knowledge reveals how many Americans live in alternative realities in which Holocaust denial and neo-Nazism are acceptable. Here are five factors shaping such radical and dangerous views.

The Background: Earlier this week the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany released a survey on Holocaust knowledge among Americans aged 18 to 39.

When asked how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust, 63 percent did not know 6 million Jews were murdered. More than one-third of those surveyed (36 percent) thought that 2 million or fewer Jews were murdered.

Nationally, almost half (48 percent) could not name a single one of the more than 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos established during World War II. Sixty percent of respondents in Texas, 58 percent in New York, and 57 percent in South Carolina were unable to name a single camp or ghetto.

Respondents were also asked in a yes/no fashion whether or not the Holocaust happened. Ten percent said it did not happen or were not sure. They were then asked which of a series of statements came closest to their view and 23 percent said they believe the Holocaust happened, but the number of Jews who died has been greatly exaggerated, is a myth and did not happen, or are unsure.

A little more than one-in-ten (11 percent) say the Jews caused the Holocaust. In New York that number is almost one-in-five (19 percent). A full 15 percent also believe it is acceptable for an individual to hold neo-Nazi views, while another 15 percent said there weren’t sure if it was acceptable.

Almost half (49 percent) have seen Holocaust denial or distortion on social media or elsewhere online. And a majority (56 percent) say they’ve seen Nazi symbols (flags with swastikas, pictures idealizing Hitler, flyers with pro-Nazi messages, pictures glorifying Nazi soldiers, “Heil Hitler” symbols such as Nazi-imagery or tattoos with “88” [a numerical code for “Heil Hitler”])  in their community and/or on social media platforms within the past five years.

Nationally, slightly more than one-in-ten (12 percent) have never heard or don’t think they’ve heard the word “Holocaust” before.

Why It Matters: If you find Holocaust denial baffling and the anti-Semitism disturbing, you’re not alone. Hearing about such poll results can leave you wondering if you live in an alternate reality. And you do.

Almost all of us today exist in a combination of a physical “in real life” existence and an online “bubble” existence. The “real world” (i.e., outside the internet) is limited in ways outside of our control, while our online existence appears, in theory, to be limitless. In actuality, our online life is limited by the information bubbles we choose to inhabit. For instance, if you choose to get information only from mainstream media sources, such as CNN or Fox News, your experience of the world will be profoundly different from someone who gets information from talk radio or message boards like 8chan. As with Choose Your Own Adventure novels, we may start off from the same point, but our media choices will lead us to radically different endpoints.

There are a multitude of causes behind this phenomenon. To begin to understand how some alternative realities can lead to Holocaust denial, though, we can consider the influence of these five factors:

1. Historical Ignorance

It’s tempting to dismiss the poll findings as merely a failure of education—for that is certainly playing a part. As national surveys remind us every year, Americans are profoundly ignorant when it comes to history. For example, a 2018 poll found 37 percent of American adults believe Benjamin Franklin invented the lightbulb, while more than half of respondents (60 percent) didn’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II.

The danger of historical ignorance is that it primes people to be susceptible to falsehoods of extremists and the propaganda of idealogues. Historical ignorance is the kindling that, when combined with the reasons stated below, can fuel radicalism.

2. Cognitive Biases

Humans tend to have an anchoring bias, a cognitive bias that causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given about a topic. It’s a tendency highlighted in Proverbs 18:17: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

For most Americans, if they know anything about history it came through formal education by an authority figure (e.g., a school teacher) when they were young. If the first information they receive about a historical event like the Holocaust is accurate and reliable, they are less likely to believe antisemitic distortions.

However, the same is also true if the first time they’ve heard of the Holocaust is from those who deny it happened. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most people learn such lies on the internet, which can reinforce their believing false historical claims. For example, if someone is on Facebook and clicks on a post about Holocaust denial, Facebook’s automated algorithms will lead them to similar Holocaust-denying content.

“Using a ‘snowball’ discovery method,” a report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue said, “we found that when a user follows public pages containing Holocaust denial content, Facebook actively promotes further Holocaust denial content to that user.”

Facebook’s algorithm thus feeds into another cognitive bias, the illusory truth effect. This is a bias where we have a tendency to believe something is true after being exposed to it multiple times. The result is that people who start out ignorant are reinforced in their ignorance while being convinced they are becoming enlightened and educated.

Most Americans won’t find their way into holocaust denial directly, though. They are most likely to stumble upon it while “playing” a form of alternative-reality online game. By “game” I don’t mean those designed and produced to be actual online games, such as Fortnite, Minecraft, or World of Warcraft, but rather a type of gamification of the “real world” that occurs online.

3. Gamification

Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. While gamification can be used in presumably harmless contexts such as marketing and health promotion, it has also been used by radical groups.

Understanding gamification can also help us understand some of the new types of non-religious cults. A prime example is the self-improvement group/sex cult NXIVM (the topic of the HBO documentary The Vow). NXIVM combined gamification and multilevel marketing to create an environment that was appealing to those interested in self-improvement. Some women became so immersed in the “game” aspects of NXIVM that it was difficult for them to extricate themselves even when they realized it was a controlling cult. (For example, “slaves” would have to text their “masters” to ask if they could eat a 100-calorie snack.)

Most forms of gamification are rather simple, but some forms are more advanced and model the alternative reality games of online game designers.

4. Alternative Reality Games (ARGs)

Alternate reality games are interactive networked narratives that use the real world as a platform and multimedia (such as videos, emails, and websites) to produce the most immersive story possible. ARGS tend to have a Puppet master, an individual involved in designing and/or running an ARG and who create obstacles and provides resources for overcoming them in the course of telling the game’s story.

Puppet masters generally remain behind “The Curtain” a metaphor for their separation from the players and the absolute secrecy regarding their identities. “Rabbit holes” are the media artifacts, such as websites, that Puppet masters use to draw in players. And the element that sets the ARG form apart from other online games is the “This Is Not a Game” sentiment popularized by the players themselves—the belief that one of the main goals of the ARG is to deny and disguise the fact that it is even a game at all.

ARGs are designed by legitimate professional game developers. But their form has been coopted by some conspiracy-based cults, such as QAnon (e.g., Q the Puppet master behind the curtain who leaves “breadcrumbs” (rabbit-trails) for his followers). As Adrian Hon, the chief executive of the gaming company Six to Start and a designer of alternate reality games explains:

QAnon is a uniquely 21st century conspiracy theory. There have been others but QAnon was born on forums like 4chan and 8chan, and the way that people interact with it initially is so purely online. But the effects bleed into the real world much like an alternate reality game.

But specifically what caught my eye is that almost everyone who discovers QAnon uses a phrase like, “I did my research.” I kept hearing that, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. This research is, basically, typing things into Google, and when they do, they go down the rabbit hole. They open a fascinating fantasy world of secret wars and cabals and Hillary Clinton controlling things, and it offers convenient explanations for things that feel inexplicable or wrong about the world. It reminded me specifically of how people get to alternate reality games, through these research rabbit holes.

Hon adds that alternate reality games “reward active discovery, the drawing of connections between clues, the delicious sensation of a hunch that pays off after hours or days of work.” He notes how QAnon does something similar:

There are a certain type of people who are attracted to alternate reality games and they are quite devoted. They like puzzle solving in the same way people like murder mysteries or crossword puzzles. As game designers we encourage that mind-set. We provide extremely difficult tasks that only 1 in 1,000 people could solve. And we do that because that one person who can solve it will feel like a hero because this weird talent they have is put to use. Alternate reality game designers like to reward its community for niche skills.

This is at play in QAnon. Many people feel alienated and left behind by the world. There’s something about QAnon like ARGs that reward and involve people for being who they are. They create a community that lets people show off their “research” skills and those people become incredibly valuable to the community.

In his article “How QAnon works like a video game to hook people,” Kyle Daly adds:

People like solving mysteries and they like feeling privy to secret knowledge. QAnon gamifies those sensations at massive scale. And although tech giants are starting to crack down on it, there’s no indication that its spread is slowing any time soon.

5. Post-Truth and Pseudo-Authorities

The two final elements are combined into one category because they form a self-reinforcing loop. The first is post-truth, denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. The second is what I would call pseudo-authorities, the replacement of generally accepted sources of human authorities (e.g., those who have actual knowledge of a topic or competence in an area) with a sham authority who is viewed as credible despite not have relevant qualifications and is willing to tell people what they want to hear.

Adopting post-truth almost always entails rejecting previously accepted authorities, such as pastors or Bible teachers. But because most people cannot live without some form of authority in their lives, they embrace pseudo-authorities who will confirm their feelings and their (often newly adopted) spurious beliefs.

Cults like QAnon and NXIVM are obvious examples, but the pattern of influences is increasingly common. The rise of both the alt-right and antifa can also be attributed, in part, to this combination. Much of the “exvangelical” deconversion movement also follows a pattern of incorporating many of these factors to shape an alternative reality.

When these five elements are combined, they create a potent threat, both to America and also to the church. Unfortunately, it’s easier to list these five factors than it is to list five ways to counter them. Simply being aware of them, though, can help us to recognize we are not just attempting to counter “alternative facts” but countering an alternative reality. By being more cognizant of what is happening outside our own media bubbles, and aware of alternative realities we do not share, Christians can be better prepared to engage in cultural apologetics.

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