Jewish leaders and Holocaust educators in the UK have welcomed YouTube’s decision to ban videos promoting Nazi ideology including Holocaust denial.
The video-sharing platform, which is owned by Google, took the steps to counter fascism and extremism in response to recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by far-right sympathisers around the world.
YouTube said it would now ban videos “alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status”.
The move signals a significant shift in approach for the technology giants, which have previously removed only illegal content, rather than merely extreme content. In doing so they have cited free speech and argued that technology companies are ill-placed to judge what is acceptable and what is not.
Yet pressure from politicians and advertisers has been building, and last year YouTube began banning videos from some prominent extremist commentators such as Alex Jones of Infowars, whose shows have frequently featured Nigel Farage.
“We welcome these changes, and hope to see other online platforms taking steps to ban Holocaust denial,” said Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
“Holocaust denial is an insult to the memory of the six million Jews who were murdered and causes so much distress to survivors. It is essential to have access to information which is accurate and does not distort the historical truth.”
She added that Holocaust denial “and other malicious and dangerous conspiracy theories do a huge amount of damage, particularly for young people, who often use sites like YouTube for information… It can be difficult to distinguish between content deliberately spreading misinformation and that explaining the truth based on facts”.
Board of Deputies’ vice-president Amanda Bowman also welcomed the decision, saying: “In an era of fake news and extremism, countering the spread of false truths and conspiracy theories has never been more important.”
She said social media companies’ policies previously did not go far enough, or were “implemented weakly,” adding: “This is a positive step in the right direction…We will continue to press the case to other social media companies that more needs to be done to combat hate.”
Not everyone was pleased with YouTube’s decision, however. Free speech advocates in the US cautioned that the move “creates free speech martyrs” in those who hold objectionable views and who can now claim censorship.
“By doing this YouTube is appointing itself arbiter of what topics we can engage in,” said Erica Goldberg, assistant professor at University of Dayton School of Law.
“It’s discriminating on the basis of viewpoint, and raises a lot of concerns, because this speech will get out there but now it will be driven underground where others can’t engage with it and change people’s minds. That leads to further radicalisation.”
Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, Karen Pollock, commented: “Holocaust denial is an evil and pernicious kind of hate. People who deliberately question the truth of the darkest episode in our collective history, poison our society, insult the memory of those murdered during the Holocaust and deeply offend those who survived.
“That is why we welcome the decision by YouTube to ban Holocaust denial, taking responsibility for what is hosted, shared and said on their sites.
“I hope that other online platforms will take note and follow suit – taking a proactive and responsible approach to combating antisemitism and hate online.”
Phil Lyons, chief executive of the National Holocaust Centre, said it was a “positive move from YouTube, because “too many people either deny the Holocaust or don’t know it happened”.
He said: “Online platforms are breeding grounds for divisive narratives, hate and toxic opinions. This is a profound social problem which we are addressing head-on through projects to engage those desensitised to extremist messages in learning about the Holocaust and where hate leads.”
He added: “Ultimately, more needs to be done – and with an increasing urgency – to address rising hate on other social media platforms and in our communities.”
In 2017, leaked internal documents showed Facebook moderators being told not to remove Holocaust denial or revisionism even in countries where it is illegal.
The Guidance Notes and Training Manuals, published in The Guardian, showed Facebook not removing offensive content in ten of the 14 countries where Holocaust denial is illegal, and only removing it in others when faced with legal action.
Citing free speech, the documents said Facebook “does not welcome local law that stands as an obstacle to an open and connected world” and only considers blocking or hiding Holocaust denial comments and images if “we face the risk of getting blocked in a country or a legal risk”.
It continued: “Some 14 countries have legislation on their books prohibiting the expression of claims that the volume of death and severity of the Holocaust is overestimated. Less than half the countries with these laws actually pursue it. We block on report only in those countries that actively pursue the issue with us.”
Facebook’s head of global policy management at the time said: “Whether reported by government entities or individual users, we remove content that violates our community standards.”