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How real-world violence led Facebook to overturn its most controversial policy

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I.

The biggest trend at platforms this month is changing your mind. Facebook belatedly banned QAnon. Twitter tapped the brakes on retweets. And on Monday, Facebook made one of the biggest policy reversals in its history, banning posts that deny or distort the Holocaust.

Today, let’s talk about the company’s long journey to doing the right thing — and what other platforms might learn from Facebook’s experience.

First, the news. Here’s Sheera Frenkel in The New York Times, featuring a quote from CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

In announcing the change, Facebook cited a recent survey that found that nearly a quarter of American adults ages 18 to 39 said they believed the Holocaust either was a myth or was exaggerated, or they weren’t sure whether it happened.

“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in his blog post. “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.”

The move comes two years after Zuckerberg sparked a controversy by pointing to the platform’s tolerance of Holocaust denial as evidence of its commitment to free speech. (Part of the controversy stemmed from the fact that Zuckerberg, talking to Kara Swisher on her podcast, said that he did not believe Holocaust deniers were “intentionally getting it wrong” — suggesting that Holocaust denial was an honest mistake rather than a malicious ideology in its own right.)

But the 2018 controversy still caught Facebook by surprise because the policy Zuckerberg cited was not a new one. Facebook had defended the rights of Holocaust deniers since at least 2009, when it had weathered an earlier firestorm over hosting anti-Semitic pages. As with the Cambridge Analytica scandal — another story about which the basic facts had long been known, but which suddenly roared back into the spotlight after fresh news reports — seismic shifts in public opinion forced Facebook to rethink long-held values.

In the subsequent two years, Facebook has accelerated efforts to ban hate speech and dangerous organizations from the platform. (Much of that work seems to have been catalyzed by the Christchurch shooting and its aftermath, in which platforms came under significant pressure to ramp up their enforcement efforts.)

That work was comprehensive enough that, if you didn’t know the history, you might assume that Facebook had carved out an exemption to its hate speech policies specifically to allow for Holocaust denial. That wasn’t the case, but it might as well have been, and ultimately it was untenable. And so — after years of civil rights groups asking the company to do so — Facebook finally caved.


II.

(I feel compelled to add a content warning about genocide to this section, which includes an account of my visit to Auschwitz.)

At a time when platforms face more pressure than ever before to remove offensive posts from their services, it can seem strange that Facebook ever permitted Holocaust denial at all. Historically, though, permitting offensive remarks about the Holocaust has been viewed by some groups as a pillar of America’s free-speech tradition. In 1978, the American Civil Liberties Union famously defended the rights of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, which was home to many Holocaust survivors.

The ACLU won the case — and lost 30,000 outraged members in the process. (The march never took place.) I learned about the saga as an undergraduate at Northwestern University, which is 15 minutes away from Skokie by car. As it so happened, my years at Northwestern saw a Holocaust denial controversy of their own. A long-tenured professor of engineering had used his university internet domain to post his denialist views, which he had originally published in a book.

Students, faculty, and alumni all called for the webpage to be removed. But the university president, while condemning the professor’s views, said that to remove the page would represent an inappropriate infringement upon academic freedom. This position generated yet more outrage, and many alumni canceled their donations to the school. But the president held firm.

As a young journalism student, I was regularly exposed to stories about infringements upon free speech around the world. Viewed in this light, I found the president’s actions courageous. He had taken a costly stand in defense of a principle, and there are few things an idealistic young person loves to see more than someone taking a costly and principled stand.

And as a student journalist, I took comfort in the president’s free-speech absolutism. If he would defend the right to speak of a Holocaust denier, I figured, he could also be trusted not to interfere in the affairs of the student newspaper, no matter how often it criticized him.

But the biggest reason I sided with the president as a student, I think, is that the problem of Holocaust denial seemed so abstract. There were no Nazis on my campus; the fascists had not attempted to march in our community in more than 20 years. A steady diet of television shows and Hollywood movies told and retold the story of how America had vanquished the Nazis and liberated Europe. If a handful of moonbat conspiracy theorists wanted to deny the obvious, I thought, what did it matter?

The summer before my final year of school, the Anti-Defamation League sponsored a trip for college newspaper editors to visit Poland and Israel and learn about Jewish history. While in Poland, we visited Auschwitz, and while touring the grounds our guide made a grisly discovery. Without warning, he stooped down to the ground and picked up a handful of soil. In the dirt were small flecks of white, which he identified as fragments of human bone.

He made all of us look at what he had found. I suddenly felt nauseous and averted my eyes. But the guide said he wanted us to look closely, so that if ever anyone denied the Holocaust to us, we would know that they were lying. The history that had seemed so distant to me in Evanston wasn’t even in the past — it was there in the soil and in his hands.

When I returned to school, the problem of Holocaust denial still seemed rather remote to me. But the longer I sat with what I saw there, the less I came to believe in the principle of letting deniers have their say on public platforms. To host denialism, the way the university president had decided to, seemed complicit in a real evil. An evil that poses a threat in the present and the future as well as in the past.


III.

I tell this story because I suspect that I am not the only American whose instinctive defenses of the First Amendment have been increasingly challenged by the rise of right-wing extremism — a good deal of which has been organized on, and amplified by, social networks.

As noxious as the university professor’s webpage was, it was not connected to a directory of 3 billion other human beings. It was not promoted by the university’s recommendation algorithms, as there were none. It did not appear as a series of ironic memes in a central feed to which students were glued. It promoted an abhorrent world view, but the page itself got very little promotion.

It’s difficult to say how much anti-Semites benefited from Facebook’s policy while it lasted. Nor can we say how much they benefited from similarly permissive policies on YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter.

But it seems relatively clear why Facebook ultimately changed its mind. “My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence,” Zuckerberg said in his post. This analysis from the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right played a role in Facebook’s thinking, I’m told. And according to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents reached an all-time high in 2019. What had started at Facebook as an abstract discussion about speech has become an urgent, tactical discussion about how to thwart real-world acts of terrorism.

Future historians will long debate what precise combination of forces led to the resurgent anti-Semitism and other hate movements we now see around the world. But for far too long, they had an unwitting ally in social networks.

Banning Holocaust denial doesn’t make it go away — Germany does so by law, and far-right forces are still on the rise there (and preaching the gospel of QAnon, to boot). But if you promise to ban hate speech, you have to ban Holocaust denial, too. They have always been one and the same, and the debate over what to do about it was never as abstract or as principled as some of us wanted to believe. I wish I’d seen that sooner. And I wish Facebook had, too.

This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about big tech and democracy.

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