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Facebook to include Holocaust denial in its definition of banned hate speech

The infamous cynical phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free” in German) at the entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oświęcim, Poland, now part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Photo by Meta.mk/Bojan Blazhevski, used with permission.

This story was originally published by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here via a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.

Facebook is changing its rules to include Holocaust denial in its definition of hate speech, after facing criticism for not doing enough to tackle this form of disinformation.

Monika Bickert, VP of Content Policy published a blog post on October 12 announcing that the most powerful social media platform on the planet is updating its hate speech policy “to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.”

Facebook based this decision on the increased levels of online attacks against many groups worldwide by individuals and organizations promoting bigotries and racism. They have already “banned over 250 white supremacist organizations” and have taken down 22.5 million pieces of hate speech from their platform in the second quarter of this year.

Bickert also noted that Facebook took into account recent survey by the NGO Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) which showed that young people in the USA have extremely low knowledge about the history related to the Holocaust, and that they hold numerous factually inaccurate positions that have been promoted by Neo-Nazi propaganda over the years.

Considering Holocaust education is key to preventing various forms of racism, including antisemitism, Bickert announced that the ban will be complemented with efforts to enable Facebook users to access verified information by providing them links to credible historical sources outside of Facebook within the search results.

In September, Meta.mk reported that human rights defenders had demanded that Facebook starts treating Holocaust denial as hate speech within its content moderation policies. For instance, in July 2020, the Claims Conference started an online campaign that featured short video clips by Holocaust survivors, who addressed messages to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explaining why it’s important to make this change to the platform's rules.

Holocaust denial is criminal offence in numerous countries around the world, including Germany, France and Russia. Laws of many other countries, like the Criminal Code of North Macedonia, consider the use of information systems for public negation, minimization, approval or justification of all forms of genocide and war crimes a felony.

The European Union has also enacted anti-hate speech policies and regulations, which include cooperation with international social media platforms.

However, Facebook’s domicile jurisdiction of the USA does not have federal laws prohibiting hate speech.

In 2018, Facebook founder Mark Zuckenberg attempted to clarify that even though his personal opinion is that Holocaust denial is abhorrent, at the time he didn’t consider that the company should enact new rules to ban all its forms because in many such cases it’s “hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.”

Two years later, he explained the change of his position through an October 12 Facebook post:

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.

In July 2020, the Anti Defamation League (ADL), a prominent international Jewish organization from New York, started a #StopHateForProfit supported by over 1,200 businesses and nonprofits calling for boycott of advertising on Facebook. The campaign goal was to pressure Facebook to tackle groups and forums which get away with publishing enormous quantities of contents that deny the Holocaust, and posts promoting bigotry, racism and disinformation.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO, issued a statement saying that his organization is “relieved that Facebook has finally taken the step that we have been asking them to take for nearly a decade: to call Holocaust denial and distortion what it is – “hate speech” – and in doing so, to remove it from their platform. The Holocaust, the systematic murder of approximately six million Jews and several million others during World War II, is one of history’s most painstakingly examined and well-documented genocides.”

According to Greenblatt, Facebook now needs to show how they fulfil these pledges, including by publishing regular monitoring reports on the concrete measures taken.

While we are relieved to learn this news, we also would note that platform decisions of this nature are only as good as the companies’ enforcement. Facebook now needs to reassure the global community that it is taking meaningful and comprehensive steps to ensure that Holocaust deniers are no longer able to take advantage of Facebook’s various platforms to spread antisemitism and hate. We hope that Facebook will follow up with regular progress reports documenting the steps they are taking to ensure that Holocaust denial and distortion permanently is expunged from their platform.

World Jewish Congress, international organization that represents Jewish communities and organizations in 100 countries around the world, and local civil society organisations like the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria (“Shalom”) also expressed support for the change of Facebook's policies related to Holocaust denial and distortion.

Facebook’s move met the approval of academic institutions that work to preserve memories of the mass murder from the past in order to prevent genocides in the future. The Illinois Holocaust Museum posted a statement on Twitter:

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