The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Sacramento Bee
December 1994

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee, December 16, 1994 (A1)
Sacramento, California

Internet warrior takes on Holocaust revisionists

by Carlos Alcala
Bee Staff Writer

It does not take long to hunt down defenders of Nazis in that electronic wilderness known as the Internet, but for Ken McVay, it does take considerable time to fight them.

McVay spends 40 to 50 hours a week - outside his convenience-store job - locating his adversaries where they congregate electronically and debating them on their own favorite topic: denying the Holocaust.

"Some of them just call me a Jewish pig, which is funny, because I'm not Jewish," McVay said. "Others are quite polite. I think it's fair to say none of them like me."

Working from his home in British Columbia with the help of a small - but global - network, McVay has amassed megabytes of material documenting German Nazi atrocities and debunking the claims of those who he believes seek to rehabilitate Hitler.

His opponents, known as revisionists, dispute accepted historical accounts of mass killings of millions of Jews during World War II. Revisionists claim there is no evidence of Nazi genocide.

McVay fears they are turning the Internet into a disinformation superhighway, using the news group alt.revisionism. "Follow alt.revisionism for a week," he said. "It will turn your stomach."

A look at several days worth of messages on alt.revisionism was less revolting than tiring: dozens of snide messages and countermessages - an insult fest among debaters.

" Mr. McVay, come to think of it, you are so stupid, that I am now in fact delighted that the powers-that-be in Canada have nominated you to be the point man against the revisionists on the Internet," wrote frequent contributor "Hoffman2nd," a Holocaust denier who referred to Jews as "Khazars" - a variant spelling of a Yiddish word for pig.

A posting from another revisionist asked" "What is wrong with making racist statements? ... What is wrong with admiring Adolf Hitler?"

Internet's supporters say such exchanges are not typical, although there are some forums, especially in religion and politics, where emotions run hot.

"I wouldn't take the tone of a list like that as representative of the entire net, by any means," said Phil Agre, a University of California, San Diego assistant professor studying on-line communication.

Even in alt.revisionism, few messages are overtly bigoted. Many consist of minute dissections of statements in other messages posted on the news group.

For example, a Holocaust revisionist will copy a section of a message by McVay or one of his allies and add remarks to counter or belittle them. Often, they will append an advertisement for a revisionist magazine, book or video.

That message will be subject to new annotations by those who disagree with it. And on and on.

The topics range from debates on how many Jews were killed to questions on the physiological effects of a cyanide-based gas.

To counter the revisionists, McVay makes huge archives of documentation accessible to Internet users.

He is part of a network of debunkers in Michigan, Rhode Island, Israel and elsewhere. By virtue of the Internet's amorphous qualities, the network is unstructured, but McVay is recognized as the most avid among the group.

"The Internet is quite an anarchy. In this anarchy, he's the leader," said Danny Keren, another amateur debunker and an engineering research associate at Brown University.

McVay's material includes not only files on Auschwitz death camp and other Holocaust topics, but information on the roots and branches of the groups that deny the Holocaust. These files show ties to openly racist organizations, McVay said.

But Ross Vicksell, of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, said revisionists are not hate-mongers. Instead, they just want "to debate the facts of the so-called Holocaust," he said. "Our real concern is that the debate is being smothered."

The Internet is one of the only forums that revisionists have for such debate, he said.

"They're not just crackpots," said Rick Eaton, a researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which monitors 250 extremist groups nationally. Revisionists often appear to be very professional, he said. "They make it sound like they really know what they're doing."

Electronic Holocaust denial is just a new face for old organizations, Eaton said. "The tactics are basically the same as we have been dealing with extremist groups for a long time," he said.

The Wiesenthal Center has generally avoided public debates with deniers, but McVay thinks they should be challenged.

"Ignoring them now is just as dangerous as it was in Germany in the '20s," he said.

McVay's aim is not to convert revisionists, but to reach those who might buy the revisionist line if they stumble on it while surfing the Internet.

Without the debunkers, "people are likely to believe things that are patently false," he said.

McVay said he does not want to silence the revisionists, either. He said he believes that is not only impossible, but dangerous.

That is a view shared by Internet experts such as Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community."

"More frightening than the prospect of all kinds of virulent hate words is the prospect of censorship," Rheingold said. "Freedom of speech protects even the most abhorrent speech. Democracy is messy and raucous."

"Nobody wants to be speech police," agreed Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. Nor does Cooper want to go back to the mythical good old days when bigots didn't have access to electronic methods.

Instead, he said, he dreams of the development of safeguards to protect against hate while protecting freedom of speech on the new technological medium.

Technologically, this already can be done on computer pay services such as Compuserv and America Online, he said.

In fact, the Wiesenthal Center recently asked one service, Prodigy, to step up its oversight of hate messages.

But because the Internet is so large and amorphous, Cooper said, those safeguards must include free-lancers such as McVay who monitor the network.

" McVay is a perfect example of the person who is going to be the eyes and ears," he said. "I think he's a kind of high-tech hero. He's my hero."


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