Terra Incognita: Zuckerberg’s shameful whitewash of Holocaust denial

There’s an elephant in the room at Facebook – and it’s called a whitewashing of antisemitism.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, at the company’s annual conference in San Francisco in 2008. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, at the company’s annual conference in San Francisco in 2008.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
They call it “Holohoax” and post memes that mock photos of starving, dying Jews who had just been liberated. They start by claiming that the Holocaust was invented by the Rothschilds and then claim a global Jewish conspiracy exists. They post racist photos depicting Jewish men crushing Europeans, minorities. Then they claim that Israel “controls ISIS” and that Jewish people are “evil.”
Holocaust denial is part of a systematic far-right racist hatred of Jews and dovetails with genocidal views, such that the same people who deny the Holocaust often simultaneously support there having been a Holocaust.
But for Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, as he said recently in a shocking interview, these are just people unintentionally getting some facts wrong. In an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, he was asked why Facebook continues to accept postings of articles that present wrong information, such as claims that the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t happen.
Zuckerberg could have hidden behind freedom of expression as a reason. But instead he referenced being Jewish. “There’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day I don’t believe that our platform should take that down.” Ok. Well, that’s enough Mark – one can accept that logic; question answered.
But Zuckerberg wasn’t done. “I think there are things that different people get wrong; I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting [them] wrong.” What? So it’s not about freedom of expression, or even that you just think it’s offensive but shouldn’t be censored: You actually think that the Holocaust deniers are just unintentionally denying?
The interviewer was also incredulous. Zuckerberg dug in. “It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly – I’m sure you do.”
Oh, so it’s just a slip of the tongue, the Holocaust denial, we all just get things wrong from time to time. Like sometimes I buy low fat milk by mistake, and sometimes people just deny the Shoah by mistake? Zuckerberg went on to claim that the redline was if someone was organizing harm or attacking others and he said that Facebook would not widely distribute that bad content through its algorithm.
THE RIDICULOUS claim that Holocaust deniers are just getting some things wrong unintentionally is in stark contrast to Zuckerberg’s outspoken solidarity with other groups victimized on Facebook. In 2015 after the Paris attacks by Islamic State, he reassured Muslims that “we will fight to protect your rights and create a peaceful and safe environment for you.” He claimed in testimony to Congress that “we do not allow hate groups on Facebook.” He also told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that “hate speech has no place on Facebook and in our community.”
But Holocaust denial does have a place on Facebook. That’s because it isn’t seen as hate speech; it isn’t seen as hate. And it isn’t seen as hate because the message to tolerate it comes directly from the top. It is portrayed as just “unintentional.”
Zuckerberg’s inability to understand Holocaust denial as a systematic part of hatred against Jews and part of attacks on Jews is not because he is out of touch with his own Jewishness. He speaks about how important being Jewish is to him. When he fought against hate speech against Muslims in 2015 he wrote “as a Jew, my parents taught me that we must stand up against attacks on all communities.” The reality is that “as a Jew” he doesn’t take Holocaust denial as seriously. He sees it as “deeply offensive” but not “hate.”
It’s hard to understand his intentions here. Is it because he is worried that taking it more seriously will lead to charges he is censoring content because he is Jewish? Is it because he never experienced antisemitism – and finds Holocaust denial to beg naïve and foolish, and not part of a systematic hatred that leads to synagogues being vandalized, men attacked for wearing a kippah or swastikas being sprayed?
OVERALL IN America there is a decline in knowledge about the Holocaust. A Claims Conference survey published in April found shocking levels of ignorance. Eleven percent of US adults and 22% of Millennials hadn’t heard of the Holocaust. Forty-one percent of Millennials thought less than 2 million Jews had been murdered and many could not name a concentration camp.
Yet, at the same time, Holocaust imagery is common in the US. When the Trump administration began separating immigrant families there were numerous comparisons to Auschwitz and the Shoah. So Americans seem to downplay or lack knowledge about the Holocaust while at the same time often seeing analogies to the Holocaust in modern times.
Holocaust denial leeches onto this process, denying that Jews died and then claiming that the Shoah was part of a conspiracy to create Israel or enrich the Rothschilds, or something along those lines. Unfortunately, as social media becomes the primary source of news, sites like Facebook have an extraordinary power to decide what people see and learn. It appears that the one group that can be routinely attacked on Facebook is the Jews, whereas similar hatred directed against other groups is seen as more hateful.
The Facebook founder talked about “unintentional”– but Facebook allowed intentional ads targeting “Jew haters.” And Scientific American found in September that ads could be directed at those interested in “how to burn Jews” or about the “history of ‘why Jews ruin the world.’” That’s not unintentional; that is intentional hatred of Jews. And it’s not just hatred on the site, it’s targeting hate through advertising that the company profits from.
There’s an elephant in the room at Facebook – and it’s called a whitewashing of antisemitism. It is part of a generational change in the US and the West in which hatred of Jews is not being taken seriously and is being relegated to a different category than other types of racism and hatred. It is part of a larger struggle over intersectionality, where Jews are too often excluded as a category of people who suffer from hatred. Instead, hatred of other groups is better understood.
If Facebook wants to allow Holocaust denial, it has many reasons why it could, such as freedom of expression or because it views it as not an immediate actual threat. But to whitewash it as unintentional or to treat it as different than other types of hatred is unacceptable. Hatred is intentional. Holocaust denial is intentional. No one denies the Holocaust out of naivety. They deny it out of a carefully chosen reason to hate Jews. You can see that because it’s part of a larger worldview. It never stops as Holocaust denial – it always is part of a larger system of hatred and bigotry.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman