Facebook's stand against Holocaust denial should lead the way online

Facebook should be applauded for halting the spread of antisemitism online, but the other social media platforms need to follow suit.

Facebook logo is reflected in glasses in this picture illustration taken April 1, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Facebook logo is reflected in glasses in this picture illustration taken April 1, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The social media giant Facebook has taken the correct and historic step of removing Holocaust denial content. In recent years, antisemitism has increased across the globe, including violent attacks against Jews, such as the Pittsburgh massacre in 2018 and the shooting rampage in Poway, California, in 2019. Facebook says it will prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.
This is a commendable step, and Facebook should be applauded for finally confronting the insidious spread of Holocaust denial on its platform. It comes at a unique time in history when the last survivors are sadly leaving this world. This means the Holocaust is further removed from living memory. Those who experienced the horrors of the Nazis and the camps are no longer capable to confront the deniers on their own. Everyone has to do their part.
Facebook says it has already banned hundreds of white supremacist organizations, and is updating terms to rid the platform of other groups that support hate speech. It says it took down millions of pieces of hate speech in the second quarter of this year. That is a huge amount of hatred. Jews are often the target of hate speech and conspiracies. Facebook says that it consulted external experts and that it is now banning antisemitic stereotypes about the “collective power of Jews that often depicts them running the world or major institutions.”
This is important. Social media allows for the easy spread of antisemitism and motifs that are linked to antisemitism. A long line of public personalities have recently expressed anti-Jewish views. And while some of them have apologized, the growing number illustrates how these ideas spread quietly before percolating to the surface. For instance, the Women’s March in the US, which was supposed to be about women and progressive values, was tarnished by accusations of antisemitism. This included conspiracies about Jewish involvement in the slave trade that are often associated with the far-right Nation of Islam movement in the US.
The web of antisemitism stretches far and wide. In the UK, a Facebook group called “Palestine Live” was found to have included many incidents of Holocaust denial. Former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was a past member of the group. Now, hopefully, groups like “Palestine Live” or its members will be banned for posting images mocking Auschwitz. In addition, academics like a former Oberlin lecturer who posted about the Rothschilds controlling the world may find their content taken down. Malaysian political leader Mahathir Mohamad, who openly told crowds at Western universities like Columbia that the Holocaust “numbers” were debatable, may find posts supporting his views less palatable to the social media giant. Iran’s far-right Holocaust denial industry, including hosting cartoon contests mocking it, may get less exposure as well.
Facebook and other social media platforms have long struggled with the balance between enabling freedom of expression and not becoming places where people are radicalized with hate. Facebook tended to take a view that was supportive of more freedom of expression. Mark Zuckerberg long championed this approach and he wrote on Monday that his own thinking has evolved due to “data showing an increase in antisemitic violence.”
This raises important questions about the role social media has played over the last two decades in radicalizing a generation of antisemites. Surveys in the US and Europe show that not only Holocaust denial views are increasing, but that antisemitic levels are shocking. For instance, a survey in the UK found that 5% deny the Holocaust and 12% believe the number of Jews killed is exaggerated. Could 2.6 million people in the UK really be Holocaust deniers? And how many people around them are influenced by their views? How many of these people became deniers through Facebook, YouTube or Twitter?
Much remains to be done to reverse the trend of antisemitism. Our society has largely failed against this tidal wave of hate. That Jews are often targeted in violent attacks – from Germany to France to the US – and the fact that they have to go to synagogue behind walls and armed guards illustrates the shameful complacency in the face of this hatred.
Facebook should be applauded for its decision, and other social media companies should follow its lead. The world needs to remain vigilant and ensure that platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are not used to spread insidious hatred of the Jewish people.