Facebook this morning announced a significant change in how it approaches Holocaust denial content on its social network. For years, the company has been criticized for not taking down this extremely offensive form of content in favor of allowing free speech and distancing itself from taking on the responsibilities of a traditional publisher. Today, it's reversing that position, saying it will now update its hate-speech policy to "prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust."
The company said it made the decision amid a growing number of online hate speech attacks and is a part of Facebook's newer efforts to fight the spread of hate speech across its platform.
"We have banned more than 250 white supremacist organizations and updated our policies to address militia groups and QAnon," explained Facebook in an announcement, authored by Monika Bickert, VP of Content Policy. "We also routinely ban other individuals and organizations globally, and we took down 22.5 million pieces of hate speech from our platform in the second quarter of this year. Following a year of consultation with external experts, we recently banned anti-Semitic stereotypes about the collective power of Jews that often depicts them running the world or its major institutions," the company said.
Facebook also shared some disturbing statistics representative of how its inaction on this front has impacted the world. It said that according to a recent survey of U.S. adults, ages 18-39, nearly a quarter said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, that it had been exaggerated or that they weren’t sure.
The company noted, too, that institutions focused on Holocaust research and remembrance, such as Yad Vashem, have stressed that Holocaust education is a key component in combating anti-Semitism.
As many may recall, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once used Holocaust denial as an example of where he thought Facebook shouldn't intervene with regard to what's posted to its platform. In a 2018 Recode interview and related follow-up, he suggested that Holocaust denial was a wrong idea that he personally found "deeply offensive," but said Facebook shouldn't take that content down because "there are things that different people get wrong."
The issue and its controversy, however, was not a new one to Facebook. Holocaust-denial content has been a longstanding problem for the company -- and one where many employees disagreed with Facebook's stated position on the matter. Even back in 2009, Facebook had favored the protection of free speech, arguing that it outweighed the negative consequences.
In the years since, Facebook was found to not only allow Holocaust denial on its platform, but to actively promote it. In a 2020 investigation by U.K.-based counter-extremist organisation Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), Facebook search results would bring up suggestions for denial pages on Facebook. These would also recommend links to publishers who sold revisionist and denial literature, among other things.
This summer, ADL and other civil rights organizations, like the NAACP and Color of Change, ran a month-long boycott of Facebook advertising in an effort to get Facebook to step up and do something about hate speech on its platform. The effort gained over 1,000 advertisers and put pressure on the company to make changes.
Facebook then moved to ban across Facebook and Instagram (for the first time) anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish people running the world, and began to ban QAnon, which has some anti-Semitic elements. But it stopped short of taking action on Holocaust denial.
In a public Facebook post, Zuckerberg added:
I've struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust. 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. 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 says its new decision on this matter does not mean users see an immediate clearing of this sort of content from the platform.
"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," Facebook noted.