In an interview with a tech magazine published this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that while he personally finds Holocaust denial "deeply offensive ... at the end of the day, I don't believe that our platform should take that down."
After a burst of criticism, Zuckerberg clarified his remarks, but only with respect to his personal feelings about those who engage with Holocaust denial. His company's policy, on the other hand, remains. On Facebook, it's officially permissible to proliferate content that denies the crimes of Nazi Germany.
Zuckerberg's stance is highly revealing about his own understanding of the historical context of Holocaust denial and how current hate groups operate. He fails on both counts.
At its foundation, Holocaust denial is a strategy to rehabilitate Nazism. George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, was "the first postwar American neo-Nazi to appreciate the strategic necessity of Holocaust denial," according to a biographer, and helped popularize the deeply offensive lie that the Holocaust was a fraud concocted by Jews.
In 1978, recognizing the need for a subtler approach, Willis Carto founded the first major American Holocaust denial organization, the Institute for Historical Review. Still active, IHR projects a pseudo-academic sheen to promote denialism.
The SPLC currently identifies 10 active Holocaust denial hate groups, four of which have a minor presence on Facebook. These hate groups, however, remain on the fringe. What they never dreamed of is the resurgence in antisemitism online, enabled by social media companies like Facebook. Zuckerberg’s preferred approach, that the “best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech,” needs to be reconciled with that fact. As a private company, Facebook can have something to do with that “good speech.”
The intent of yesterday’s Rockwell and Carto is the same as today’s neo-Nazis at the Daily Stormer or on 4chan: to erode the public’s understanding of the Holocaust in order to make fascist and Nazi ideas appealing again. The danger grows as the years go by and fewer people alive today actually witnessed the events of the 1930s and 1940s. In a poll released earlier this year, 41 percent of all respondents and 66 percent of young Americans failed to identify Auschwitz as an extermination camp.
Zuckerberg’s refusal to address propaganda as hateful and obvious as Holocaust denial also bodes poorly for other vulnerable communities, such as American Muslims, a community regularly demonized by rhetoric espoused by even the president. As it stands, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant propagandists easily clear the low hurdles set up by platforms like Facebook.
Whether Zuckerberg likes it or not, Facebook has an immense responsibility to fight hate on its platform. Last summer, the organizers of the deadly “Unite the Right” gathering in Charlottesville used Facebook to promote their event, the largest white supremacist rally in decades. A year later, the company is still refusing to meet its responsibility.
P.S. Here are a few other reads from around the web that are worth spending time with:
- Holocaust study: Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is by Julie Zauzmer for Washington Post
- Facebook Must Adhere to German Holocaust Denial Laws, Says Berlin by Reuters for New York Times
- Zuckerberg's comments give Holocaust deniers an opening by Deborah Lipstadt for CNN
- Holocaust Denial and how to combat it on the world’s largest internet forum from Reddit