Facebook and Holocaust denial: How it's become worse over time

This isn't the first time Facebook's apparent acceptance of Holocaust denial has caused problems. The company's attitude has, if anything, become more muddled.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

I first wondered about this nine years ago.

Brian Cuban, author, speaker, and brother of tech entrepreneur and occasional sports team owner Mark Cuban, suggested I look at some of the Holocaust denial groups on Facebook.

It was ugly.

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In 2009, Facebook was already complaining that it had so many users and so much content that it just couldn't police everything. Or, some feared, wouldn't.

Yet I persuaded the company's then-communications head Barry Schnitt to explain why Facebook allowed these (to my mind) hateful groups.

The site acted with alacrity when its porn police saw images of breastfeeding women, but not so fast when it came to Holocaust denial.

Schnitt told me that he found Holocaust denial abhorrent. However, he added a fascinating rider:

"Would we rather Holocaust denial was discussed behind closed doors or quietly propagated by anonymous sources? Or would we rather it was discussed in the open on Facebook where people's real names and their photo is associated with it for their friends, peers, and colleagues to see?"

I'll try and leave aside the quaint notion that everyone on Facebook uses their real identity. I'll try to drift past the idea of allowing Holocaust denial a platform where the idea can be taken, in some way, seriously as an intellectual position.

Let's skip, instead, to see how far Facebook has gone backward. Over the years, Facebook has insisted that groups must make actual threats for them to be banned.

Now, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg in an interview with Recode's Kara Swisher, the company doesn't even mistrust the aims of those who run Holocaust denial groups or post on them.

"I don't think that they're intentionally getting it wrong," he said.

The mere idea that those who propagate Holocaust denial don't do so with the express intent of fomenting anti-Semitism is painfully deluded.

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Anyone who thinks that Holocaust deniers are -- as some world leaders might put it -- good people hasn't considered the issue or looked at Facebook lately.

The site has been the world's biggest platform for spreading false, demented, and hateful ideas for the past several years.

The intentional spreading of false, demented, and hateful ideas, that is.

It's likely affected elections, after all.

Once Zuckerberg's latest words had wafted around Twitter and Facebook on Wednesday, he tried to, well, clarify them.

"I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn't intend to defend the intent of people who deny that," he told Recode.

Nine years ago, Schnitt told me that deciding about Holocaust denial groups was "a judgment call." Soon after we chatted, Facebook judged that a couple of the groups should be removed.

It's remarkable, though, that as Facebook has made more and more money, its judgment calls have become less and less astute. Or even entirely lacking in existence.

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The site has tried to make itself for everyone, in some sort of Swiss neutrality pas-de-deux.

Too often, though, the company is now faced with the reality that its dance floor needs to be policed, and heavily. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff believes it should be regulated like tobacco.

Of course, Facebook -- like a lot of Silicon Valley companies that broke a lot and fixed very little -- didn't intend for it to come to this, did it?

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