Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has announced that the social media giant is to finally ban Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion in a major move that will cheer activists fighting online antisemitism.
In a personal note, Zuckerberg said he had “struggled” with the tension between allowing free expression and seeking to minimise harm, adding that his own thinking had “evolved” after seeing evidence of rising antisemitism.
Announcing the long-awaited U-turn on Monday, Facebook’s vice-president of content policy Monika Bickert said the tech giant was updating its hate speech policy “to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust”.
She said: “Organisations that study trends in hate speech are reporting increases in online attacks against many groups worldwide, and we continue our efforts to remove it. We have banned more than 250 white supremacist organisations and updated our policies to address militia groups and QAnon.”
Bickert said Facebook removed 22 million examples of hate speech from April to June, having recently banned antisemitic stereotypes about the collective power of Jews “that depicts them running the world or its major institutions,” adding: “Today’s announcement marks another step in our effort to fight hate on our services.”
Zuckerberg appeared to address criticism that Facebook’s algorithms send users down an online path of Holocaust conspiracy, saying that from now on anyone searching for the Holocaust on the site would be directed “to authoritative sources to get accurate information”.
He said: “I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimising or denying the horror of the Holocaust. My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in antisemitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech.”
Zuckerberg added that “drawing the right line between what is and isn’t acceptable isn’t straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance”.
Bickert cited “the alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust, especially among young people,” adding that a recent survey of Americans aged 18-39 showed that almost a quarter thought the Holocaust was a myth, exaggerated, or weren’t sure.
Facebook has held regular discussions with Jewish groups around the world, including the Community Security Trust in the UK, she said, but cautioned that “enforcement of these policies cannot happen overnight”.
Bickert said: “There is a range of content that can violate these policies, and it will take some time to train our reviewers and systems on enforcement. We are grateful to many partners for their input and candour as we work to keep our platform safe.”
In a statement, the Community Security Trust said it “has called for many years for Holocaust denial and distortion to be banned by Facebook from all its platforms, so we welcome today’s announcement and we are proud of the role we have played in making it happen, along with other key partners. Holocaust denial is not just a wrong opinion about history: It is an antisemitic conspiracy designed to incite hatred of Jewish people, and this ban is an important step in our fight against antisemitism and its modern enablers. As ever, the real benefit of this move will only be felt through proper, consistent enforcement, and we look forward to working with Facebook in ensuring that this is done.”
The Board of Deputies of British Jews’ President Marie van der Zyl, welcomed the “long overdue” move, before urging it to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, “in recognition that online is the new frontline against Jew hate.”
She added that the Board “has regularly made it clear to Facebook that the company’s apparent reluctance to ban Holocaust Denial raised serious questions about their determination to combat antisemitism.”
Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said the Shoah “is not a matter for debate”, branding denial a “pernicious and abhorrent form of antisemitism, which has no place in our society or on our social media networks.”
It has been a matter of huge pain to survivors, their families, and the Jewish community, to know their history can be questioned or negated on social platforms with no consequences, so we welcome this important step by Facebook and hope to see enforcement leads to the change that is desperately needed.”
Antisemitism Policy Trust chief executive Danny Stone welcomed the move, saying it “finally aligns” Facebook’s policies to ban antisemitism and hate speech.
“Previously, Jew-hatred disguised as Holocaust denial and revisionism was allowed unabated, meaning Jewish users who saw this sort of content could not do anything to combat it,” said Stone.
“In removing it from the platform, Facebook is sending a message that Jewish and other people’s collective memories and experiences of this horror are no longer fair game. Denial will no longer be so easy.”
President, Conference of European Rabbis, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, reacted to the news saying: “Finally, something has happened – even if this step was long overdue. We welcome Facebook’s decision that in future it will no longer allow content and posts denying the Holocaust. However, this can only be the beginning – especially amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
Online antisemitism and right-wing extremism rages too much across all social media platforms and poisons social cohesion. Hate speech should have no place within our society whatsoever. Facebook and other social media giants still have a long way to go to eradicate such vitriolic hate speech.”
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