In the wake of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments defending the right of Holocaust deniers to use the powerful internet platform, pressure is mounting on the tech giant from inside and outside the Jewish community to ban such content.
And the recent move by Facebook, Apple and YouTube to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars website from their platforms is helping to fuel the effort.
“They did it in one case — they need to do it across the board,” Samuel Asher, executive director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, told The Jewish Week. “I’m hopeful that he [Zuckerberg] would take that step.”
Last week, Asher was among two dozen Holocaust experts from around the world who last week signed a letter to Zuckerberg in which they offered Facebook “proven educational resources [about the Holocaust] in multiple languages, ready for digital deployment.”
The signatories also offered “cost-free professional development programs for educators on Facebook to give them resources, skills and confidence to tackle hate and prejudice, and to teach empathy, understanding and respect.”
Mark Cave, a trustee of the United Kingdom’s National Holocaust Centre and Museum and one of the initiators of the letter, told The Jewish Week in an email interview that he sees a similarity between Jones and Holocaust deniers. “Both parties pursue an agenda of hate and incitement to hate. Facebook’s position seems hypocritical. We would welcome an explanation from them.”
Jones, usually described as the most-influential right-wing conspiracy theorist in the country, has declined to refute the authenticity of the classic anti-Semitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and has declared on his radio program that a “Jewish mafia … run[s] Uber, they run the health care, they’re going to scam you, they’re going to hurt you.”
Among Jones’ claims on his syndicated radio show and website: that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax; that President Obama is a member of al-Qaeda; that the U.S. government was involved in the Oklahoma City bombings; that Parkland, Fla., high school shooting survivor David Hogg is a “crisis actor”; and that Hillary Clinton runs a pedophilia ring from a Washington pizzeria.
In banning Jones and Infowars, Facebook accused the website of “glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies,” according to Vox.
Zuckerberg stoked the controversy by defending his decision not to ban Holocaust denial on the grounds that while Holocaust denial (sometimes referred to as Holocaust revisionism) is offensive, Holocaust deniers may be sincere in their beliefs.
“Facebook rejects hate. We take down any post that celebrates, defends, or attempts to justify the Holocaust,” Ruchika Budhraja, a Facebook spokeswoman, told The Jewish Week via email. “The same goes for any content that mocks Holocaust victims, accuses victims of lying about the atrocities, spews hate, or advocates for violence against Jewish people in any way.
“But we do not remove lies or content that is inaccurate – whether it’s denying the Holocaust, the Armenian massacre or the fact that the Syrian government has killed hundreds of thousands of its own people,” Budhraja added. “We do believe that people should be able to say things on Facebook that are wrong or untrue, even when they are offensive.
Asher and other Jewish observers stressed that Holocaust denial carries with it the threat of violence, and therefore should not be seen as protected speech.
“Holocaust denial is not getting things wrong — it is anti-Semitism spread to mislead and incite hatred,” Asher said, referring to Zuckerberg’s original comments to Recode’s Kara Swisher that Holocaust deniers may simply be mistaken. (Zuckerberg later clarified, saying, “I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of the people who deny that [the Holocaust].”)
In addition to the letter from Holocaust experts, a Change.org petition initiated by the New York-based Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect was signed early this week by some 117,000 educational institutions, museums and individuals around the world. The petition calls on Facebook to take down Holocaust denial pages, said Alexandra Devitt, the Center’s director of communications and marketing.
Facebook’s decision to remove Alex Jones from its platform strengthens the Center’s argument for removing Holocaust denial material, Devitt said. “Together with the Holocaust Learning and Education Fund and the Association of Holocaust Organizations, we [the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect] began this petition before Facebook banned Alex Jones, but if Facebook can ban Jones from their site for spreading hate and lies, then it seems they have the power to do the same with these Holocaust Denial pages.”
Steven Freeman, vice president for civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League, said officials of his agency “have had conversations … over the years” with Zuckerberg in which they expressed concern about the threat caused by Holocaust deniers. “There are real world consequences for Jews.”
In an email to The Jewish Week, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said, “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.”
In a letter to Facebook, Greenblatt wrote, “Virulent antisemitism is a proven pathway that leads from rhetorical hatred to actions of violence. Freedom of speech laws are not a reason to do nothing — inaction is always the opportunity for evil to flourish. All genocide starts with distortion of the truth and prejudice.”
Holocaust denial, said novelist and law Professor Thane Rosenbaum, a son of Holocaust survivors, is not the result of too little information or a misinterpretation of facts. “It’s a conscious choice — to cause harm to a community,” to incite people to “actual violence” against Jews. “It’s not just emotional harm,” he said.
Individuals who maintain a belief that the earth is flat – another common conspiracy theory – “do not have any kind of violence attached to their message,” said attorney Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and the son of Holocaust survivors. “It’s a question of not providing a platform for hate speech.”
But not everyone in the Jewish community believes that Holocaust denial should automatically be banned speech.
“That line is very thin,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee.
While the Holocaust deniers’ views are clearly false, Facebook, as a private corporation, is within its legal rights to continue disseminating them, Stern said. It’s not a matter of constitutional First Amendment protection; removing the material would not be considered censorship. “It’s a private concern. It’s a matter of purely private judgment.”
The debate about Facebook, Jones and conspiracy theories has a deeply resonant echo in the Jewish community. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Russian secret police created a lengthy document that purportedly showed that a cabal of prominent Jews were seeking to discredit Christianity and enslave the world. It became the most prominent conspiracy theory of its time.
Over subsequent decades, “The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion,” first published in Russia in 1903, became a matter of public controversy around the world, with the Jewish community denouncing them, anti-Semites embracing them and newspapers debating whether to publish stories about them.
The Holocaust denial movement, which finds major support among white nationalists and neo-Nazis in the United States, and several Arab and Muslim nations in the Middle East, calls the Holocaust a hoax, and its figures of genocide exaggerated in an effort to advance Jewish interests and garner support for Israel.
At the same time, recent polls here indicate a declining level of knowledge about the Holocaust among many citizens, particularly members of the millennial generation. This year’s candidates for political office, including a man who is running for the mayor’s office in Hilton Head, S.C., as well as candidates for Congress in Illinois and California, are openly espousing Holocaust revisionist views, a stance that would likely have been unthinkable in earlier years.