By Shauli Bar-On
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced intense scrutiny after discussing his company’s policy regarding removing fake news from the platform. Zuckerberg was interviewed about what Facebook was doing to combat fake news, and he came under fire after saying that his company would not remove content claiming the Holocaust never took place. His comments:
“I’m Jewish and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find it deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
He later clarified his statement and said, “I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.”
While Zuckerberg probably shouldn’t have delved into the Holocaust as an example in discussing Facebook’s policies, from a purely legal standpoint, he does have a strong case.
It must be noted that Facebook does actively remove Holocaust denial from its platform in countries where its denial is illegal, such as Germany. But it must also be noted that the United States, along with 180 other countries, has no such law.
Facebook, as a private company, has the power to choose what kind of content it wants to allow and what content it wants to ban. It has no duty to comply with the First Amendment freedom of speech clause. In fact, it actively chooses not to:
Facebook’s community guidelines, published April, include a ban on “hate speech” because “it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence.” There is no reference to “hate speech” in United States law. The company’s policy defines it as “violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation.” Facebook says Holocaust denial is not covered as such speech.
Under United States law, freedom of speech provides a legal cover to spread anti-semitic hate, for example. Speech is no longer protected by the First Amendment the moment it encourages violence. In a straightforward example, it is legal to say, “the Holocaust never happened,” but it is illegal to say, “the Holocaust never happened, and we should destroy exhibits in all Holocaust museums.” Of course, the reality is not so black and white. Whether certain speech “encourages violence” or merely “spreads hate” is often a blurry line.
The Jewish community ought to be disgusted with all Holocaust deniers, whether they spew their false information in good or in bad faith. But all advocates in free speech, should stand up for even the worse kind of freedom of speech, so long as the speech in question does not fall into the category of defamation or violent threats, which are both illegal under United States law. The proper remedy for this kind of improper speech is a civil defamation lawsuit or a criminal one, respectively.
Refusing to stand up for the right to spread disgusting information — as seemingly dishonorable it may be — is advocating for pure censorship.
Censorship means choosing not to choose whose speech we ban. If we choose to ban all, we must ban all. If we refuse to ban one, we must refuse to ban all.
It appears many are forgetting the powerful words of French philosopher Voltaire, one of the most influential thinkers on the free speech movement, who said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Matthew McGregor, campaigns director of “HOPE not hate,” said the following to the Guardian: “The Holocaust is one of the great evils of history, an industrial genocide levelled against the Jewish people. It did happen and it is more than just ‘deeply offensive’: it is incredibly dangerous to give any credence or platform to those who deny it. Facebook, as a publisher of content, has a responsibility to ensure that the violence inherent in the message of Holocaust deniers must not be able to flourish without being challenged or held in check. This is not about ‘getting it wrong’, it is about not enabling dangerous people to spread a vile message of hate.”
The Jewish community, and every other supporter of truth, will not let any Holocaust denial to “flourish,” go unchallenged or not be “held in check.” Never.
Every Holocaust Memorial Day, the Jewish community gathers together to say “we will never forget.” Indeed, we have established museums, recorded the testimony of thousands of survivors, published books and photos documenting the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust, in which over 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime.
Indeed, we will never forget. And when someone denies Jewish history on any platform or medium, we will fight. But we will fight with words, proof and evidence, not with censorship.