Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn: We sent message to the world with Shoah denial ban

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Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn: We sent message to the world with Shoah denial ban

Social media giant's vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa says she 'felt it was time' to take a zero-tolerance approach to deniers and distorters.

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Nicola Mendelsohn
Nicola Mendelsohn

Facebook vice-president Lady Nicola Mendelsohn has spoken of her “special pride” at the company’s decision this week to finally remove all Holocaust denial and distortion from its social media platforms.

Mendelsohn, who together with husband Jon is a senior British Jewish community figure, said Facebook’s new policy would “send a clear message to the rest of the world” that online hatred would not be allowed.

Writing in this week’s Jewish News, the vice-president of Facebook Europe, Middle East and Africa said the tech giant’s hierarchy “felt it was time” for the change after years of allowing denial and revisionism on its platforms on the basis of free speech.

She also revealed that two UK-based Jewish organisations – the Community Security Trust (CST) and the Antisemitism Policy Trust (APT) – “played a key role in the decision” that Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg announced on Monday.

In a personal note, Zuckerberg said he had “struggled” to find a balance between free expression and minimising harm, adding that his own thinking had “evolved” after seeing evidence of rising antisemitism.

The firm’s vice-president of content policy Monika Bickert said Facebook, which also owns Instagram, was updating its hate speech policy “to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust”.

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”.

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.

She cautioned that “enforcement of these policies cannot happen overnight… 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”.

APT chief executive Danny Stone said the move “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,” he said.

“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.”

Evidence of the impact of the status quo had been building. In May, the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right said Facebook had become a “key arena” for the mainstreaming of extremist ideas, particularly far-right narratives, with the widespread use of terms like “Zionists” or “globalists” to denote Jews.

Dr Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler at the Israel Democracy Institute said the policy U-turn “recognises that recent upticks in antisemitism can be tied directly to the prevalence of white supremacists and Nazi sympathisers on the world’s largest social network”.

Across the British Jewish community, the change was cheered, with Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl saying it was “long overdue”, adding: “Holocaust denial is not just a form of misinformation, it is a form of hate speech.”

The CST said it was “proud of the role we played in making it happen,” adding that “the real benefit of this will only be felt through proper, consistent enforcement”.

Likewise Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust said the Shoah was “not a matter for debate,” adding: “It has been a matter of huge pain to survivors and their families that their history can be questioned or negated on these platforms, so we welcome this important step by Facebook and hope that enforcement leads to change.”

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