Should Facebook Ban Holocaust Denial?


When a major Jewish organization polled Americans last year about their knowledge of the Holocaust, the results were shocking. Thirty-one percent of 31 percent of Americans — and 41 percent of millennials — believe that substantially fewer than 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and 45 percent of the overall sample could not name a single concentration camp, according to the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany survey. Twenty-two percent of millennials didn’t even know what the Holocaust was.

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook, and the millennial of all millennials, walked right into the gaping Holocaust knowledge gap last week when he seemed to suggest in an interview with the tech news site Recode that Holocaust deniers aren’t “intentionally getting [things] wrong.”

He later clarified in a follow-up email to Recode’s Kara Swisher that “I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.” But the whole episode touched off a wide-ranging conversation about Holocaust denial, internet content, free speech and even the notion of criminalizing Holocaust denial.

The debate led to some fault lines in the Jewish community, especially about whether Facebook and other social media outlets should ban Holocaust denial. (In the Recode interview, Zuckerberg stated that Facebook would not delete content that was false or misleading, but rather make it less visible in the platform’s “News Feed,” where users see content of those they follow as well as sponsored material.)

In a phone interview with The Jewish Week, Deborah Lipstadt, a noted Holocaust historian and professor at Emory University who has spent her career fighting Holocaust denial, criticized Zuckerberg’s assumption that Holocaust deniers were not “intentionally getting it wrong.”

Lipstadt explained that “Holocaust denial is predicated on anti-Semitism, on the notion that the Jews have made this all up: they’ve made it all up in order to get money from Germany, they’ve made this all up to get a state and displace another people, that the Jews were powerful enough to get the Allies to do their bidding. … All those are anti-Semitic tropes or themes.” Denial, said Lipstadt, highlights “the power of the Jews to do this evil thing in order to enrich themselves.”

While she stopped short of saying that Holocaust denial should be criminalized, citing concern about a “slippery slope” of government regulation of speech, Lipstadt argued that Facebook and other social media platforms should keep posts from deniers out of their spaces.

She told JTA in an email: “I do not believe that non-governmental entities, such as Facebook, should be posting denial claims. Freedom of the press means the press should be free of governmental control. It does not mean that the press or social media platforms have to provide space for deniers.”

The Anti-Defamation League agreed.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Jonathan Greenblatt, the group’s CEO, argued that “Facebook does try to ban hate speech — and should root out Holocaust denial on those grounds, not simply because it’s false.” He elaborated in an email to The Jewish Week that “Holocaust denial has led to violent attacks against Jews, including the June 2009 shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum by an avowed white supremacist who spent much of his career promoting falsehoods about the Nazis and their role in the Holocaust.” The group said in a statement, “Facebook has a moral and ethical obligation not to allow its [Holocaust denial’s] dissemination.”

Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet magazine and frequent commentator on issues of anti-Semitic harassment online, agreed with Lipstadt that “People spread Holocaust denial in order to undermine societal awareness of anti-Semitism and its consequences in order to make it easier to be anti-Semitic.”

But Rosenberg, who has faced significant harassment by neo-Nazis on Twitter, does not believe that Facebook should delete content that denies the Holocaust. Writing last week in The Atlantic he said that Facebook should instead offer a sort of “Surgeon General’s warning” that advises viewers of a page that the content they are viewing is false, offering links to reliable sites where users can learn more.

In some ways, the most provocative voice in the debate came from Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s former director of marketing.

In a statement to CNN, she said that while she does not believe Facebook should ban Holocaust deniers, “the reality is that it is not currently considered a crime in the United States, and if we want our social networks to remove this hateful speech and follow the lead of many countries in Europe who denounce it as criminal, we need to expand the conversation more broadly and legislate at a national level.”

Though Holocaust denial has long been criminalized as hate speech in many European countries (most notably Germany), it has never been illegal in the United States. And neither Lipstadt, Greenblatt nor Rosenberg supports its criminalization.

Rosenberg argued that “I don’t think criminalizing any form of speech is an effective way of dealing with it. It doesn’t mean that you’ve refuted the worldview that gave rise to it, it just means that you’ve suppressed the symptom of the worldview while letting it otherwise go unrefuted, and if anything you’ve made a martyr out of the people who are spreading it.” He cited high rates of anti-Semitism in European countries that legislate against Holocaust denial as evidence that such laws do not materially reduce incidents of anti-Semitism.

Greenblatt told The Jewish Week that while Holocaust denial is “ugly speech, it is still protected by the First Amendment. We believe strongly in the right to free speech in this country. Holocaust deniers have every right to express their hatred, but we also have a right to use our free speech rights to counter such hate speech and reject it for the fiction it is.”

In her comments, Randi Zuckerberg also brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into play, seeming to compare Holocaust denial with support for the movement to divest from Israel.

“I wish that these platforms didn’t give a voice to those who cry out for divestment from Israel, make anti-Jewish remarks, and many, many other issues,” she wrote. “But silencing everyone — or worse, silencing selectively — would be far more nefarious.”

Zuckerberg Media, Randi Zuckerberg’s company, did not respond to a request for comment. Lipstadt told The Jewish Week that “what Mark and Randi Zuckerberg don’t understand, and many other people with them, is that Holocaust denial is not a mistaken point of view, it’s an overt distortion of history.”

Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for divestment from Israel as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, told The Jewish Week in an email statement that “comments by Randi Zuckerberg, in which she conflates the international call to divest from companies profiting from the violation of Palestinian rights with the racist and violent agenda of Holocaust deniers, are beyond the pale. … Divestment, as part of the BDS call, urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law. Comparing divestment to Holocaust denial is not only a gross misrepresentation, but factually utterly inaccurate.”

Read the Jewish Week editorial on the issue here