Holocaust Denial on Facebook

It’s hard to believe, but in this year, 2009 CE, only about 64 years after Adolf Hitler and his Nazis were forced to end their systematic destruction of the Jewish people, there are some who deny that the Holocaust, the … Read More

By / May 27, 2009

It’s hard to believe, but in this year, 2009 CE, only about 64 years after Adolf Hitler and his Nazis were forced to end their systematic destruction of the Jewish people, there are some who deny that the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children, ever happened.  Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is the most prominent leader of today’s Holocaust denial movement and his views enjoy plenty of support in the Arab-Muslim world and in Europe.

As a Jew who is proud of his Jewish heritage, I’ve always been wary of the tendency of many Jews to focus on the Holocaust to the exclusion of other aspects of Jewish history.  After all, we were around for several thousand years before the Holocaust.  Judaism is the first Religion of the Book; hell, we came up with the Book, the Book out of which Christianity and Islam were born.  We invented monotheism, the concept of an omnipotent and omniscient God who resides in heaven.  And did I mention the foundation of Western morality, aka the Ten Commandments?  That was our contribution too.  In sum, there is more to our heritage than our slaughter by the Nazis.     Unfortunately, Holocaust deniers ensure that the issue of the Holocaust, about which there really isn’t much to discuss, remains in the fore.  Holocaust denial is a rallying cry for anti-Semitism because it allows Jew-haters to deny us our claim to suffering, to effectively shut off the capacity to feel any sort of empathy for us.  Needless to say, it’s difficult to have constructive dialogue with an adversary who denies you your humanity.

Enter Facebook. "The mere statement of denying the Holocaust does not constitute a violation of our policies," says Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt.  As you might imagine, Facebook, which prohibits pornography, or speech that is "threatening" or "hateful," has come under fire for this policy.  As well it should.  While Facebook might argue that Holocaust denial groups are not inherently "threatening"-these groups don’t necessarily speak of inflicting physical harm on Jews-it cannot with any kind of integrity argue that Holocaust denial groups are not inherently hateful.  Theoretically, perhaps, one could deny the Holocaust’s existence and not have an agenda against the Jewish people.  But the theoretical here is insignificant.  As attorney Brian Cuban points out in his open letter to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, common sense dictates that in practice, "The Holocaust denial movement is nothing more than a pretext to allow the preaching of hatred against Jews and to recruit other like-minded individuals to do the same."   So what if Holocaust denial is hateful?  In the United States we are free to hold hateful, bigoted views, as long as we don’t threaten or harm anyone.  That was Columbia University’s president Lee Bollinger’s argument for inviting Ahmadinejad to speak on his campus.  Bollinger felt that by granting that monster an international stage, he was championing the cause of freedom of speech.

His reasoning always made me cringe.  Even if Holocaust denial can and should be legal here in the U.S., why should our desire to uphold the First Amendment prompt us to make a mockery of it by granting such a prestigious forum to Holocaust denial or any other disgusting view?  There can be no purposeful discourse with a Holocaust denier or any other bigot committed to hate, so why engage his vitriol?  Holocaust denial and the like should be relegated to the fringe.  It belongs as far away as possible from acceptable conversation.               

There is a difference, however, between Facebook’s situation and Bollinger’s empowerment of a hate-monger.  Facebook doesn’t invite hate groups to form on its pages.  It simply provides a platform, and the bulk of the groups it houses are perfectly legitimate.  If I worked for Facebook, I would respond to Cuban’s point by noting that within the realm of legality, it is not up to Facebook to draw red lines about morality or what is and is not appropriately controversial.  If Facebook were to determine that five of ten Holocaust denial groups were not kosher for its pages, and it were to delete these five, would the remaining five be somehow Facebook-sanctioned?   Facebook maintains that its decision to allow Holocaust denial and other hate groups is a principled one. "We have a lot of internal debate and we bring in experts to talk about it," Schnitt said in a CNN interview.  "Just being offensive or objectionable doesn’t get it taken off Facebook. We want it [the site] to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones." Call me a cynic, but I’m skeptical of that explanation.  Facebook’s stated desire to be a hub for controversial ideas seems awfully convenient given that it can’t possibly have the resources to monitor every single group that’s established on its pages.  According to a survey released on May 13th by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the number of Web pages and shared online documents promoting racism or other forms of hatred has surged to 10,000, a 25% increase from last year.  Given that Facebook houses the highest percentage, 30% of these instances of hate, that’s 3,000 (and growing) hate groups for it to identify, let alone contend with.  I can’t prove it, but I imagine that there’s a certain type of "hateful" and "threatening" speech that gets a group tossed from Facebook’s pages every time: Speech that is illegal and speech that is actionable.  It is illegal to threaten someone with physical harm.   Therefore, any Facebook pages that do so are removed as they’re discovered.  Defamation of character and other grievances frequently result in lawsuits and hefty fees for the defendants.  If I’m the CEO of Facebook, or any other corporation for that matter, my service terms are dictated by nothing loftier than what I can get away with and what will get me sued.    Facebook ended up removing two of the groups that Cuban identified as offensive when users posted comments on those pages that did violate service terms.  So what does that say about the other "controversial" groups?  Until Facebook defines exactly what it means by speech that is "hateful" and "threatening," we won’t know for sure.   

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