Facebook Bans Holocaust Denial Content, A New Progression In The Debate Over Free Speech On Social Media

After 16 years as a social media platform, Facebook is taking more aggressive steps towards censoring content on its site. On October 12th, Facebook issued a ban on all content “denying or distorting the Holocaust,” according to NPR. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, was under pressure by multiple organizations, including the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Anti-Defamation League, Claims Conference, and the World Jewish Congress, to forbid Holocaust denial content. The Claims Conference had most recently posted its 75th video where Holocaust survivor Fred Kurz, who lost his parents in concentration camps, appealed to Zuckerberg to ban anti-Semitic speech. In 2018, Zuckerberg conducted an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher that caused the backlash. He said that although anti-Semitic content was “deeply offensive” he did not “believe that our platform should take [the comments] down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think they’re intentionally getting it wrong.” He also stated that it was not Facebook’s role to be the “arbiter of truth.”

After the killing of George Floyd and a new debate on hate crimes in America, as well as a survey that found almost 25% of Americans between 18 and 39 believed the Holocaust was either a myth or exaggerated, Zuckerberg was forced to reconsider. The fact that the Holocaust denial ban is occurring three weeks before the presidential election is also not a coincidence. According to NBC, Zuckerberg announced in a Facebook post, “I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust…Drawing the right lines between what is and isn’t acceptable speech isn’t straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance.” NBC stated that in the second quarter of 2020, Facebook took down 22.5 million pieces of hate speech and banned 250 white supremacist organizations, QAnon (a far-right conspiracy group), and militia groups. Monika Bickert, Vice-President of Content Policy at Facebook, emphasized that the transition to a complete ban would take some time to be realized.

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted, “having personally engaged with Facebook on the issue, I can attest the ban on Holocaust denial is a big deal…glad it finally happened.” However, Greenblatt also questioned why it took so long: “We question this claim because if they had wanted to support the Jewish community, this change could have been implemented at any point in the last nine years.” Time magazine quoted Yael Eisenstat, Facebook’s former head of global elections integrity for political ads: “I half-heartedly applaud the move. The fact that Zuckerberg has finally, after years of advocacy from anti-hate groups like the ADL and others, accepted that Holocaust denial is a blatant anti-Semitic tactic is, of course, a good thing. The fact that it took him this long to accept that these organizations had more experience than him and knew what they were talking about is dangerous.” The New Yorker suggested this was because of his ties with prominent conservatives, with whom he had discussed free speech. One big supporter of Facebook is Ben Shapiro, the editor of the right-wing tabloid the Daily Wire.

Facebook’s decision on Holocaust denial content stems from the bigger debate of free speech on social media. Zuckerberg has described the dilemma of promoting freedom of expression and the First Amendment on his platform or curbing potentially dangerous content. The Anti-Defamation League said Facebook has a “moral and ethical obligation” to prevent hate speech. As a public space that reaches billions of people, Facebook has the power to influence and shape opinions around the world. With that much responsibility, it should be careful of the information it is putting out. Facebook is not constrained by laws in the same way as governments, which makes it a new frontier as a power player. Facebook is only limiting voices if they are factually untrue and spread hateful and harmful information. Unlike a government which may quash voices of dissent, Facebook is more specific in censorship, and its censorship for the collective good.

Facebook is not the only platform that is faced with the same dilemma over free speech. CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey said the company would not support political advertising and also has put warning labels on some of President Trump’s tweets. The New Yorker quoted Dorsey: “paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.” Once the full Holocaust denial ban is in place on Facebook, Bickert said the search for terms related to the Holocaust will direct users to accurate information.

Facebook’s new ban on Holocaust denial content marks a shift to what could be more censorship of hate speech, despite previous claims by Zuckerberg that the platform should be a place of free speech. As a platform that arguably has a wider influence than any single government, it does have a moral responsibility to ensure its content is not dangerous or bigoted in any way, which could make a huge difference in today’s political climate.

Dayna Li