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Facebook Bans Holocaust Denial, Reversing Earlier Policy

Oct 12, 2020
Originally published on October 15, 2020 4:04 pm

Updated at 4:05 p.m. ET

Facebook is banning all content that "denies or distorts the Holocaust," in a policy reversal that comes after increased pressure from critics.

Just two years ago, founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview that even though he finds such posts "deeply offensive," he did not believe Facebook should take them down. Zuckerberg has said on numerous occasions that Facebook shouldn't be forced to be the arbiter of truth on its platform, but rather allow a wide range of speech.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Zuckerberg said his thinking has "evolved" because of data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence. The company said it was also in response to an "alarming" level of ignorance about the Holocaust, especially among young people. It pointed to a recent survey that found almost a quarter of people in US aged 18-39 said they believed the Holocaust was either a myth, had been exaggerated or were not sure about the genocide.

"I've struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust," Zuckerberg wrote. "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."

Facebook has been under increased pressure to act more aggressively on hate speech, misinformation and other harmful content. The company has recently strengthened its rules to prohibit anti-Semitic stereotypes, and banned accounts related to militia groups and QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory movement.

This summer, a group of Holocaust survivors, organized by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, launched a social media campaign urging Zuckerberg to remove Holocaust denial from Facebook.

On Monday, the group tweeted: "Survivors spoke! Facebook listened."

In addition to removing Holocaust-denying posts, Facebook will begin directing users who search for terms associated with the Holocaust or its denial to "credible information" off the platform later this year, Monika Bickert, head of content policy, said in a blog post. She said it would take "some time" to train Facebook's enforcement systems to enact the change.

Critics say how effectively Facebook polices its rules is the big question.

"We are seeing a trend toward Facebook listening to their critics and ultimately doing the right thing. That's a trend we need to encourage," Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which has been pushing Facebook to crack down on Holocaust deniers for years, told NPR.

"Ultimately, Facebook will be judged not on the promises they make, but on how they keep those promises," he said.

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Facebook said today it is banning all content that denies or distorts the Holocaust. That is a big reversal. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long said the social network is a place for free speech, even if that speech is offensive. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond is on the line with us now to offer more details. And we should note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So tell us a little more about this new policy. I mean, how did Zuckerberg's thinking on this change?

BOND: Yeah. So to understand that, we should go back to 2018. He gave this interview to Recode, and he said that while he personally finds Holocaust denial deeply offensive, he said Facebook shouldn't take these posts down just because they're factually wrong. Here's what he told them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: I just don't think that it is the right thing to say we are going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.

BOND: And really, the way that Zuckerberg frames this, you know, his idea is Facebook is a place for people to exercise free speech, and the company shouldn't be the arbiter of truth. He says that over and over. This approach, of course, has caused a lot of controversy and criticism. Zuckerberg even had to go back and clarify he wasn't defending Holocaust deniers. So today in a Facebook post, Zuckerberg now says his thinking has, quote, "evolved" over how his company handles Holocaust denial and that balance between free speech and harm.

CHANG: Interesting. Well, what about the timing of this policy change? I mean, why is Facebook taking action now, you think?

BOND: Well, Facebook says this is, you know, really about what's happening in the world. They point to data showing a global increase in anti-Semitic violence. They also referenced this study of younger Americans that showed almost a quarter say the Holocaust is a myth or exaggerated or they're unsure about it. They say that's an alarming level of ignorance. And there's external pressure. This summer, a group called the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany organized a social media campaign. Here's one of the videos it put out. And you can hear Holocaust survivors pleading with Zuckerberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mark Zuckerberg...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Remove the Holocaust deniers from Facebook...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No, there is no denying it. The Holocaust was real. I know.

BOND: You know, we've been talking about this so much this year. Facebook is just under all of this pressure to stop hate speech of any kind. Of course, it can be really difficult to remove bad content, especially when it can go viral so quickly among billions of users. And Facebook has acknowledged this new policy will take some time to enforce effectively. It has to train its artificial intelligence technology to recognize and stamp out these false claims.

CHANG: Right. Well, what are critics of Facebook saying about this particular change?

BOND: Well, across the board, I would say, you know, this has really been welcomed by critics. You know, many of them are saying this is a really big step. This is a big deal for Facebook to do it, even if it is belated, because, of course, many of these groups have been telling Facebook for years that Holocaust denial is a huge problem. And in just the past few weeks, Facebook has been cracking down more on harmful content. It banned QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that really took off this year and has been so popular on Facebook. It prohibited anti-Semitic stereotypes, banned armed militia groups. I spoke with Jonathan Greenblatt. He's the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and he's part of a coalition behind a campaign this summer to boycott Facebook advertising.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Facebook will be judged, not on the promises they make but on how they keep those promises.

BOND: And you know - and this is something that people say to me all the time. You know, Greenblatt here is saying Facebook is listening to its critics. It's doing the right thing. That's important. The real question, though, is how will they enforce all these rules?

CHANG: That is NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.