Facebook Ban of Holocaust Denial Considered Too Little, Too Late

The company has a lot to answer for

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook moves to ban Holocaust denial and misinformation content on its platform. 
  • Facebook’s role in misinformation remains unchanged as the company refuses to extend their policy beyond anti-Semitic, Holocaust-centered content.
  • While seen as a good move, sources suggest Facebook has a commitment to extend their ban to other bigoted and conspiratorial content. 
A smartphone and tablet displaying fake news laying on news papers.
John Lamb / Getty Images

Facebook’s decision to remove content that spreads Holocaust denial and misinformation sets the stage for a larger social media content policy while drawing questions from critics.

Facebook walked back its previous policy, which citied free speech as its guiding principle for allowing hate content to be published and stay up, after a mass of pressure from Holocaust survivors, Jewish organizations, and a call for a boycott. The official Facebook blog post pinned by VP of Content Policy Monika Bickert makes clear its new policy is a response to challengers mentioning recent trends in hate online and an increase in antisemitism in America and abroad. Yet, critics are suggesting Facebook’s move is simply a calculated one that ignores some of the more venal elements of disinformation on its platform.

"It’s too little, too late. They’ve already done so much damage," said Historian of Modern Jewish History, Michael Berkowitz. "While it’s true that Holocaust denial and very extreme right-wing expressions are deeply problematic and shouldn’t be allowed on these forums, one of the problems is cultural codes that allow groups to spread their ideas and hatred in more secretive ways… and Zuckerberg has been horrible on this."

Too Little, Too Late

Berkowitz says Facebook and social media have caused irrevocable damage not only to discourse and important institutions, but also the realm of reality itself. Describing the conversation as a "sewer," he argues their attempt to reimagine free speech as a rejection of social reality has allowed distortions to fester among an active, impressionable user base that exceeds 2.6 billion people on Facebook alone.

A recent study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found nearly two-thirds of Gen Z and Millennials age 18-39 did not know 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust while 23 percent believed it was either exaggerated, a myth, or are unsure of its full veracity. On a related note, the Anti-Defamation League reported anti-Semitic hate incidents hit an all-time high in 2019 since its tracking began over 40 years ago.

Mark Zuckerberg at the Munich Security Conference.
Johannes Simon / Getty Images 

Painting the picture of a changing cultural landscape, much of it is fueled by online communities and secret silos where people congregate to disseminate content not unlike Holocaust denial and other conspiracies. Facebook remains one of the single largest contributors to misinformation, according to a German Marshall Fund Digital report, which says that misinformation on the platform is 3x as popular as it was in 2016.

Beyond Holocaust Denial

"Bigotries often come together, and they bear a complex relation to one another," Atalia Omer, Senior Fellow at The Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, said in an email. "Think of Charlottesville in August 2017 and how slogans against Jews were integral to the display of anti-black racist hate and violence and those bigotries also cross-pollinate with others such as targeting the Latinx community and homophobia and transphobia."

Author of the book, Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity With Palestinians, Omer also serves as the co-director of Contending Modernities at the University of Notre Dame. She spoke at length about the way she feels anti-Semitism is bastardized in public discourse and weaponized in a way that removes it from its intersectional connection, noting Facebook’s effort to curtail anti-Semitism while allowing the propagation of other genocide denial and hate-based content.

Omer’s fears are not without precedent. In 2018, the U.N. found that Facebook’s failure to address hate content on its platform in the South Asian country of Myanmar directly aided in the mass murder, rape and dehumanization of the Rohingya, a marginalized Muslim minority group.

A young person drinking tea in the morning, looking at a smartphone.
 Nam Bui Anh / Gety Images

In this country of 50 million people, some 18 million use Facebook and, for many, it is their only access to any online content let alone social media. An investigation published by Reuters found over 1,000 posts calling for the murder of Muslims and equating the vulnerable population to dogs and other animals.

Despite this history, Facebook remains resolute in the face of opposition. The company told Bloomberg, for instance, that its new policy only extends to Holocaust-based misinformation using the Armenian Genocide and Rwandan Genocide as examples of historical genocides where denial and misinformation are allowed.

Facebook’s struggles in Myanmar are among much broader problems it faces. Omer suggests the massive global platform has a responsibility to extend its policy beyond the narrow application of antisemitism. 

"Facebook’s pretenses to be an equalizer are now finally exposed. Even though I am Jewish and I trace my family’s roots to the genocide against the Jews in Europe I absolutely worry about the social media platform’s decision to finally fight falsehood but in a controlled way where they choose which hate to let thrive in dark corners and which to eradicate," Omer said.