A few weeks ago, Facebook announced that it would ban “any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust”. This decision has come after years of increasing pressure placed on the social media site to do more to counter hateful content and misinformation across its platforms.
Earlier in the year, Facebook banned the use of harmful stereotypes including antisemitic content but did not ban Holocaust denial. The new extension to this ban which restricts Holocaust denial or distortion has involved the removal of over 22.5 million pieces of hate speech. The new policy will now direct users to more “authoritative sources to get accurate information” when users look up phrases relating to the Holocaust.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has previously been hesitant to implement such a ban. In a public statement posted to Facebook, he said that “My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech.”
Mr Zuckerberg’s view seems to have shifted in congruence with this alarming trend across the world. In the UK, antisemitic abuse was at an all-time high in 2019, according to the charity, the Community Security Trust (CST). Since 2018, antisemitic incidents increased by 7% to 1,805, with a very troubling 25% increase in violent antisemitic assaults. Similarly, according to the Anti-Defamation League, in the US, the Jewish-American community witnessed the highest number of antisemitic incidents since reports began back in 1979.
The perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, had posted antisemitic content on social media before he went on to murder 11 people and injure 6 six more. This was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the US. The gunman was an active user on a Far Right website called Gab, a “free speech” alternative to more mainstream social media sites.
The synagogue shooting in Poway, California which took place on the last day of Passover in 2019 also showed a similar pattern of behaviour. The culprit had shared a racist and antisemitic open letter to 8chan which blamed Jews for the “meticulously planned genocide of the European race”.
Last year, two people were killed in an attempted mass shooting on Yom Kippur in the German city of Halle. The attacker announced himself as a Holocaust denier during the antisemitic and extremist rant which he livestreamed to a website called Twitch.
This terrifying trend of violent antisemitic incidents and social media demonstrates how truly overdue banning Holocaust denial and other forms of antisemitism is.
Two years ago, Mr Zuckerberg controversially said that such kind of posts should not automatically be taken down for “getting it wrong”. He has also stated that he thinks, “Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.”
Mr Zuckerberg also said he had, “struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimising or denying the horror of the Holocaust.” He has been a regular advocate of free speech and said in 2018 that, “We should be proactive and write policies that help free expression triumph around the world.”
However, I would argue that freedom of expression, while important for a democracy to function should never be used to deny, distort, challenge or trivialise the Holocaust. The Holocaust included the murders of approximately six million Jewish men, women and children by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Every day, survivors of this atrocity relive this horror as witnesses to the truth and to educate future generations on why we must learn from this dark part of our shared history.
Furthermore, while Mr Zuckerberg is quick to champion free speech, it is becoming increasingly evident that the way Facebook uses our data is not one that merely enables the freedom of expression but instead one that can manipulate it.
Research has shown that the algorithm used by Facebook ‘actively promoted’ Holocaust denial. Prior to the ban, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue conducted an investigation into the role of Facebook in allowing antisemitic content to disseminate on its platform. The counter-extremist organisation found that searching the word ‘Holocaust’ brought up results directing users to content promoting Holocaust denial.
This ‘readily accessible’ content was being pushed by over 30 public pages devoted purely to Holocaust denial and which had more than 360,000 followers. This ‘snowball’ discovery method also led the user to other works including revisionist literature by people such as David Irving and Oswald Mosley.
According to the report, “When a user follows public pages containing Holocaust denial content, Facebook actively promotes further Holocaust denial content to that user.” By not only allowing this kind of hate speech to go unchecked but also to advance it, Facebook has been able to “provide a home to an established and active community of Holocaust deniers.”
Additionally, the Online Hate Prevention Institute released a report in 2013 on antisemitism on Facebook. The report found that historical antisemitic imagery had been updated to modern formats, such as memes, which can easily be shared. These included antisemitic conspiracy theories such as the blood libel, responsibility for the Black Death, and the idea that a secret Jewish elite controlled the world.
The use of the meme format to propagate such hateful content demonstrates the normalisation and also trivialisation of antisemitism on Facebook.
This utilisation of social media in such a way demonstrates how the internet can be used to spread antisemitism, hatred and misinformation in a largely unregulated way. Holly Huffnagle of the American Jewish Committee said that, “The digitization of anti-Semitism online and its corresponding reach on social media has contributed to rising levels of global anti-Semitism.”
As Facebook has finally acted on combatting Holocaust denial and distortion, other social media sites should adopt a similar stance.
Twitter has been told it ‘needs to do better’ after rapper Wiley recently went on an abhorrent antisemitic rant. The tweets were left visible on his page for hours prompting a 48-hour boycott from Twitter by the Jewish Community, allies, some politicians and high-profile figures.
Google has been accused of profiting from antisemitism via its video-sharing platform, YouTube. An investigation found that right-wing vloggers and conspiracy theorists were paying to have their comments more visible. These comments have included antisemitism, racism and the promotion of violence.
TikTok has also come under scrutiny recently for a trend that emerged in August called the #HolocaustChallenge, where users videoed themselves dressed up as Holocaust victims.
When used properly, social media can be a fantastic tool in countering hateful content with facts. It can also be a resource in Holocaust education and teaching people about tolerance and respect. However, what this pattern shows is that when not monitored properly, social media can not only host but also promote hate speech.