Originally published as: Andre Oboler, “It’s Time Facebook Repents“, Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2014.
On the morning of Rosh Hashannah a petition signed by 10,306 people arrived at Facebook Headquarters asking the company to change their policy on Holocaust denial. Facebook’s current position on Holocaust denial is that “the mere statement of denying the Holocaust is not a violation of our policies”. They justify this by treating the Holocaust not as a unique tragedy in human history, but as just another historical event, and they say they won’t prohibit Holocaust denial because they “recognize people’s right to be factually wrong about historic events”.
A letter from Facebook outlining their position is on the public record as part of a report in online antisemitism published by the Israeli Government last year. In recent times Facebook has moved away from the inflexible application of generic rules and has reversed their position across a whole range of issues. The new approach is much more strongly based on common sense and meeting reasonable public expectations about community standards. The arrival of the new petition is a timely call for Facebook, and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, to reflect and reconsider their position on Holocaust denial, which remains an open wound to not only the Jewish community but all civil society more broadly. The existing policy simply cannot be sustained in light of the way Facebook in 2014 responses to similar concerns.
In May 2013, after two years of regarding content that made light of rape as “humorous”, and therefore “acceptable” on Facebook, the company relented and agreed that misogyny was not acceptable under its community standards. At the time Facebook stated that “it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate”. This is another positive example of Facebook changing its approach to meet users’ expectations. It’s a pity it took two years and a major campaign, including loss of significant advertising, to make this happen.
A few months ago Facebook quietly lifted a ban on pictures of breastfeeding women. The ban was considered a form of gender-based discrimination by some women’s groups. The ban dates back to 2008 and news of a major effort to enforce it was announced by the same spokesperson and at the same time as news of Facebook’s position of permitting Holocaust denial on their social media platform. Michael Arrington wrote a very powerful article about the hypocrisy of these policies, the article was called “Jew Haters Welcome At Facebook, As Long As They Aren’t Lactating”. It seems half the issue has been solved, and the problem we are left with is simply “Jew Haters Welcome at Facebook”. It’s time that was addressed.
In recent days Facebook has reversed course over an effort to close the profiles of members of the LGBT community on the basis they were not using their ‘real names’. As David Campos explained, “for many members of the LGBT community the ability to self-identify is a matter of health and safety. Not allowing drag performers, transgender people and other members of our community to go by their chosen names can result in violence, stalking, violations of privacy and repercussions at work.” In this case Facebook recognised the damage their approach was causing and reversed course. Holocaust denial too is dangerous, it helps rehabilitate Nazi groups and facilitate their recruitment drives.
The problem of users posting Holocaust denial on Facebook was first raised at a meeting of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism in February 2008, it was one of the primary examples of “antisemitism 2.0”. Facebook’s unwillingness to tackle this problem gained major media attention from early 2009. Their position is so out of touch with global public expectations that it has led to international meetings in which Facebook has been questioned, a protest letter from Holocaust survivors organised by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a grassroots protest outside Facebook’s offices, efforts to resolve the issue through cooperation by the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, and many other initiatives from organisations, communities, individuals and companies. Facebook has grown as a company, and it has also matured, but this one issue is holdover of social media history.
The new petition is the result of dedicated work over three years and comes from the administrators of the closed Facebook group “Ban ALL Holocaust Denial Pages and Groups from Facebook” who also operate a Facebook page with just shy of 22,000 supporters. The decision to close the petition and send it to Facebook at this point in time was a choice and I believe it was a good one. Facebook’s response to the LGBT issue shows they are now taking public concern more seriously and are able to check themselves and reverse course when needed. The change of policy in respect to pictures of breastfeeding months shows that even old well established positions can be changed.
As Facebook improves the way it deals with sensitive topics and community expectations, the lack of resolution on the Holocaust denial problem is a weight that grows heavier. Holocaust denial should not be a sacrificial goat, blessed by Facebook, and sent into the wilderness to placate those demanding the sort of free speech which costs others their dignity and safety. This Yom Kippur, it’s time for those at Facebook to reflect, reconsider, and yes, repent. It’s time those Holocaust survivors who wrote to Facebook in 2011 to receive a new answer, while at least some are still alive to receive it. It’s time this issue was put to bed.