Since the 2016 election, it seems as though Facebook has pretty much done everything in its power to silence legitimate conservative thought short of outright barring its airing. In fact, this led to some of the more contentious parts of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress not too long ago.
So, at least in Menlo Park, California, conservatism is something that should be looked upon with all due suspicion. Holocaust denial? That’s cool, though.
That’s at least the message from an interview Zuckerberg did for the Recode Decode podcast, which was (depending on your preconceptions of the Facebook CEO) somewhere on the spectrum between “problematic” and “absolutely cringe-worthy.”
The whole thing began with Recode asking Zuckerberg to make a case for taking Infowars — Alex Jones’ controversial conspiracy theory platform — off of Facebook.
“I think if you were trying to argue on the side of basically the core principle of keeping the community safe, I think you would try to argue that the content is somehow attacking people or is creating an unsafe environment,” Zuckerberg said. “Let me give you an example of where we would take it down. In Myanmar or Sri Lanka, where there’s a history of sectarian violence, similar to the tradition in the U.S. where you can’t go into a movie theater and yell ‘Fire!’ because that creates an imminent harm.”
It’s interesting that the head of a social media platform known to tinker severely with what people can or cannot see is apparently citing Schenck v. United States as the summum bonum of speech restrictions. I trust that Mr. Zuckerberg is a well-read man, but I’d encourage him to go back and read the full decision, not just the line that’s received the most play.
But I digress. The conversation then veered into how Zuckerberg was dealing with fake news and what the bar was.
“We are moving towards the policy of misinformation that is aimed at or going to induce violence,” he said. “The principles that we have on what we remove from the service are, if it’s going to result in real harm, real physical harm, or if you’re attacking individuals, then that content shouldn’t be on the platform. There’s a lot of categories of that that we can get into, but then there’s broad debate.”
The host then pointed out that there isn’t exactly serious debate over Jones’ contention that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax. However, Zuckerberg said that unless Jones or someone who believed the same thing he does was actually harassing Sandy Hook victims, they wouldn’t do anything about it.
“But overall, let’s take this whole closer to home,” Zuckerberg said. “I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened … I find that 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, but I think…”
“In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead,” the host interjected.
“It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent,” Zuckerberg responded. “I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, ‘We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.’”
Zuckerberg has since “clarified” his remarks, saying that “I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.” Which, duh. I’m kind of at a loss how Holocaust denial — something that absolutely no reasonable person in the public sphere actually believes — isn’t going to be censored while conservative news outlets and pundits are.
This censorship, like so many things in this story, also isn’t up for debate. You can cite anecdotal cases associated with conservative or patriotic values (like Facebook’s decision to bar a post that included an excerpt of the Declaration of Independence), concrete ones (like with pro-Trump personalities Diamond and Silk, where Facebook “came to the conclusion that your content and your brand has been determined unsafe to the community”) or the hard numbers (like our study that Facebook’s algorithm changes had demonstrably affected traffic to conservative news channels much more significantly than it had for liberal outlets, numbers that couldn’t be explained without intent).
Now, Holocaust deniers don’t exactly get the kind of numbers that publishers like us do, and thank God they don’t. But they are a pernicious part of Facebook’s underbelly, particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the globe. While bigotry against Jews isn’t quite on the level of the state-sponsored terror imposed by the government of Myanmar or the sectarian violence in Sri Lanka cited by Zuckerberg, it’s still a pressing issue of the day.
Deniers also aren’t exactly comparable to Infowars. Alex Jones, crank though you may well believe him to be, doesn’t represent a physical danger to people, nor does he openly espouse pernicious bigotry designed to foment hatred against a religious or ethnic group. For Zuckerberg to move from Alex Jones to Holocaust deniers isn’t the most inappropriate thing about this mephitic verbal hiccup by a long shot, but it bears noting as a window into Zuckerberg’s soul.
To stand by Holocaust denial as non-violent speech that’s part of a reasonable debate, especially when you’re at the helm of a social media platform where invisible hands pull the strings of political opinion, is simply preposterous. You are certainly free to react in your own way to Zuckerberg’s remarks and what kind of rot it reveals inside the walls at Menlo Park. As someone who works for a publisher that’s borne the brunt of Facebook’s policies on political speech, count me on the “absolutely cringe-worthy” side of the scale.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.