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Facebook’s Move on Holocaust Denialism Is Too Late

Facebook is recognizing that it is a media company that curates content. Zuckerberg was making the right business choice to keep the platform as open as possible. Now he is doing the right thing by identifying its moral and social responsibility.
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October 15, 2020
Image by metamorworks/Getty Images

Facebook has come out against Holocaust denial. This week, the company announced that it is “updating [its] hate speech policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.” For Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, the decision marks a public retreat from his notorious position, articulated two years ago, that although he didn’t agree with Holocaust denialism, he didn’t think it was Facebook’s place to censor it. Far too belatedly, Zuckerberg’s agenda-setting company has taken the easiest and most obvious steps to stand up for truth and fight back against hate. (Two days after Facebook’s announcement, Twitter followed suit.)

I have long been skeptical of Facebook’s power. Nearly a year ago, I decided to stop using the platform because I was troubled by its rampant invasions of privacy. I also gave up Twitter. And while I appreciate the moves these companies are making now, I can’t help feeling that it’s too little, too late.

Consider all the months of advocacy it took to get Zuckerberg to agree to even this modest step. In June, a group of organizations led by the Anti-Defamation League started a campaign called Stop Hate For Profit, calling on companies and groups to pause their advertising campaigns on Facebook for the month of July in protest of the rampant hate speech and harassment that proliferates on the platform. More than 1,200 brands pulled millions in ad dollars. At the same time, the Claims Conference organized a brilliant social media campaign called #NoDenyingIt. Each day for 74 days, they posted a video from a survivor calling on Zuckerberg to recognize that Holocaust denial is hate speech.

After all these efforts, it seems to me that Facebook and Twitter have made a business decision that some deeply problematic ideologies do not belong on their platform. And it’s not just Holocaust denial—anti-vaxxers and white supremacists are facing Facebook bans, too. Facebook’s announcement boasted that 250 white supremacist organizations have been exiled from the platform, and that 22.5 million pieces of hate speech were removed in the second quarter of this year alone.

But that itself is cause for great concern. An annualized total of nearly 100 million hateful posts on just one social media platform, suggests that online hate is an enormous problem. And I suspect the reason for the slow action is that Zuckerberg has always known this will be a hard problem to solve.

Once the celebratory fist pumping is done, the real challenge begins. Because Holocaust denial is not going away. And when it comes to excising posts, it is not easy to define what constitutes Holocaust denial. Neo-Nazis spouting blatantly hateful propaganda: those are the easy cases. The more insidious situations are not. Denial has become much more sophisticated today. Relativizing the Holocaust is to deny it. Undermining the historical record of the Holocaust is to deny it. Questioning whether the Nazis really intended the genocidal horrors of the Holocaust is to deny it.

Once the celebratory fist pumping is done, the real challenge begins.

I’ve spent 25 years trying to understand the many facets of Holocaust denial. Who inside Facebook is going to be charged with such a delicate task? Someone on staff? New hires? An algorithm? It is much tougher than it sounds.

report on extremists banned from Reddit in 2017 showed that blocking users who spew hate speech reduces the incidence of hate on the Internet by 80-90 percent. Yes, blocking abusers works; they don’t just sprout up elsewhere. So why did Facebook need to have to hear from 74 Holocaust survivors before they acknowledged the obvious? Why did Twitter have to wait for Facebook before acting? It was never about free speech, because Facebook and Twitter are private companies and not subject to the First Amendment’s strictures. It has always been their call to make.

Through this and similar policy changes, Facebook is recognizing that it is a media company that curates content. Zuckerberg was making the right business choice to keep the platform as open as possible. Now he is doing the right thing by identifying its moral and social responsibility.


Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation. He is also the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.

 

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