Facebook's guideline changes on Holocaust – important and overdue

We have to recognize what Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms were created to do: break down barriers, borders and communication lines and provide people with the means to meet.

It took time, but Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg should be commended for banning content that denies and distorts the Holocaust.  (photo credit: ERIN SCOTT/REUTERS)
It took time, but Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg should be commended for banning content that denies and distorts the Holocaust.
(photo credit: ERIN SCOTT/REUTERS)
In March, Facebook’s head of policy in Israel Jordana Cutler received an additional job title. First appointed in 2016, Cutler was now adding “the Jewish Diaspora” to her job description. While the three words might not seem like much, they carried with them quite the punch.

That punch was on display on Monday when the social media titan – with a reported 2.7 billion users – announced that it would ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust. 

It was a strong break from Facebook’s previous position. Mark Zuckerberg offered in a 2018 interview that as a Jew, he was deeply offended by people who deny that the Holocaust happened.

“But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” he told Recode.

At the time, Zuckerberg’s comments drew the fury of Jewish leaders across the globe. Paul Packer, chairman of the US government’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, wrote to the Facebook CEO saying: “You have failed your users and the world at large.” 

But that was no longer the case as of Monday. Zuckerberg did a 180, explaining that despite his longtime commitment to freedom of speech, “with rising antisemitism, we’re expanding our policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust as well.” 

While Zuckerberg was the one to make the announcement, Cutler has been credited by many Jewish organizational leaders as one of the main catalysts behind the change in policy, which while important, has also raised criticism over why it had to take so long.

Cutler explained to me that policy discussions take place at weekly company forums that focus on analyzing hate speech, dangerous behavior and potentially dangerous organizations. Every discussion, she said, is about finding the right balance.

“If you narrow the definition just to content then you miss behavior,” she said, citing as an example Facebook’s decision to ban Louis Farrakhan from the platform in 2019, a decision YouTube only made this week. Farrakhan, Cutler said, illustrated someone who was removed not simply because of content he posted on the platform, but more due to his public activity and behavior. 

“Dangerous organization policy looks at how people behave off the platform,” she explained. “Most of Farrakhan’s violating content was off our platform so removing him from Facebook is keeping that kind of ideology off that platform.”

The reason this is delicate is because there are other cases, like Jewish actor Seth Rogen.  In a recent interview, he questioned why Israel was established. That is a comment that could potentially be viewed as antisemitic according to IHRA’s working definition (Rogen, of course, was not banned from the platform because of one bad statement). 

“The question is, at what point does someone post enough to be removed, and does someone do enough in the real world that we don’t let them have a presence on the platform,” Cutler explained.

While the banning of content that denies and distorts the Holocaust has always been a focus of conversation in the company, Cutler cites a corporate decision in August to ban conspiracy theories about Jews – about Jewish people running the world or controlling media networks, the banks and governments – as a turning point for the Holocaust as well.

“We have always protected Jews but there was a gap,” she admitted. The change in August and the announcement this week was meant to close that gap.

Jewish leaders who worked with Cutler over the last few years credited her with helping push the company toward this week’s decision, mostly by taking a smart and diplomatic approach. Part of what brought about the policy change was Facebook’s establishment of working groups and roundtables with representatives of Jewish groups from across the globe.

Diplomacy has been part of Cutler’s job for some time. Originally from Washington, Cutler moved to Israel in 2007 and got a job working as an assistant to Ron Dermer, who was then a top foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When Dermer was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the US in 2013, Cutler and her family followed him there where she served as his chief of staff.

“I spoke to her a number of times over the years and she would say, give me time,” said one American-Jewish leader, adding that while he felt that the decision took too long, it was better late than never.
FACEBOOK’S DECISION is ultimately commendable and the right one. Should it have been made years ago? Of course. Just like child pornography is outlawed on Facebook, so should something as clear-cut as Holocaust denial.

But we also have to recognize what Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms were created to do: break down barriers, borders and communication lines and provide people with the means to meet, talk and debate issues without supervision, censorship or oversight.

With the dangers in today’s world, some level of oversight is of course needed, but what might appear as hate speech to one person does not automatically meet that definition for someone else. If the judgment of content becomes automatic, then would we all expect Seth Rogen’s account be deactivated? Is that what the Jewish community would want? I don’t think so.

Dissemination of information is complicated, especially on platforms like Facebook, where the filters are more porous than in a publication like ours. That does not absolve the company of responsibility. They should be held accountable for what appears on their platform, and they should take that responsibility seriously.

This week, Facebook made it clear that it does.
In one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, The Godfather character Jack Woltz wakes up on satin sheets smeared in blood together with a horse’s head under the covers. It had been placed there after Woltz refused to negotiate with the Corleone family. It also wasn’t just any horse, but the Khartoum, a champion racehorse Woltz had purchased for $600,000.
Was it the Corleone family that killed the horse and put it in his bed? That was for Woltz to decide. Either way, the message got across, and Don Corleone once again got his way.
I thought of this scene after watching two top Likud members go on the assault this past week and threaten everything that came their way. Unlike the Don though, they didn’t do it with the same cinematic style. They were loud, public and crass.
First was Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who appeared on the popular Channel 12 talk show Ofira and Berkovic – hosted by legendary soccer star Eyal Berkovic and TV personality Ofira Asayag – and exploded into a verbal outburst.
Taking offense at Berkovic for his having the week before labeled Regev’s Likud Party a “criminal organization” due to its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, she demanded an apology and yelled at the former soccer star that he would “never be the coach of Israel’s national team” unless he apologized to “the one-and-a-half million Likud members whom you called ‘members of a criminal organization.’”
Next came coalition chairman Miki Zohar, who threatened to air more dirt about Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit if he didn’t immediately quit his job and rescind the charges against Netanyahu.
“If Mandelblit does not resign and dismiss the indictments, we will reveal more,” Zohar told 103FM Radio. Asked if he was threatening Mandelblit, Zohar replied, “it is not a threat, it is a promise.”
No horse’s head, no ambiguity, and no class. Direct threats on full display for the entire public to hear.
I wish I could write that this is surprising, and that Regev’s and Zohar’s comments are outliers on Israel’s political landscape. Unfortunately, they are not. On Wednesday, just a few hours after Zohar spoke, a fight broke out between some of the Likud Knesset members. MK Keren Barak called out to her party colleague May Golan: “You are not worth the sole on my shoe. Not you, and not the retarded blonde,” referring to another Likud MK, Osnat Mark.
Something bad is happening in the Likud party, and it is dangerous for the country. When a Likud minister ties political affiliation to coaching jobs, she sounds like some apparatchik in the former Soviet Union. When a high-ranking MK who serves as the coalition chairman threatens to air more dirt on the attorney general, he sounds like some third-rate dictator in the old Eastern Europe.
Sadly, this is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Likud is tanking in the polls, is hemorrhaging mandates, and its leader – who had once seemed impenetrable and unbeatable – is about to go back to court for three days a week starting in January. What that means is that this battle against democratic institutions and norms will continue, and the rhetoric will only get worse.
This is what happens when a sitting prime minister is on trial, and this is what happens when the ruling party is fighting for political survival. Everything is permissible. One day it’s a threat by a top MK, and the next day someone might take a shot at a protestor or a prosecutor.
Israel is on dangerous ground. The cliff is just around the corner.