After letting it fester for years, Facebook has finally decided to ban the pseudoscientific bigotry of Holocaust denial.
Social media generally, and Facebook in particular, has been an enormous benefit to the spread of pseudoscience, quackery, fake content and bigotry for well over a decade. It has allowed groups of misinformation pushers to aggregate together, help each other grow and spread their nonsense in an organized and targeted way. With the help of advanced methods for manipulating social media algorithms, it has enabled the rise in spread of dangerous and misinformed ideologies. This includes different kinds of genocide denial.
What is Holocaust denial?
The Holocaust is the name for the systematic eradicating of Jews and other minorities during World War II by the Nazis. The basic features is that there was an intention for genocide among leading Nazis that was primarily based on ideas of ethnic background, that the Nazis used a highly industrialized program of gas chambers to kill people and crematoria where bodies were burned and that approximately 6 million Jews were murdered. If you add up all individual smaller groups to this, the total is somewhere around 11 to 12 million.
The Holocaust is an historical fact and one of the most well-documented events in all of history. It is based on thousands and thousands of documents, blueprints, photographs, videos, buildings, eyewitness accounts and confessions that all converge (within their respective margins of error) to the same general conclusion.
Holocaust denial is, essentially, an attempt to ideologically rehabilitate Nazism as somehow being a viable political stance. It is typically based on antisemitism and uses various forms of pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical claims to attack modern history.
Does Facebook algorithms benefit Holocaust denial?
In August of 2020, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue released an analysis that concluded that the algorithms that rule Facebook actively promoted Holocaust denial through search results. These, in turn, connected viewers to more traditional source of Holocaust denier that sold books from Holocaust deniers and content featuring disgraced Holocaust denier David Irving.
How big of a presence did Holocaust denial have on Facebook at the time the report was released? It turns out that they found around three dozen Facebook groups with a combined total of 366 068 users that are “specifically dedicated to Holocaust denial or which host such content”. For comparison, this is more than the population of the Hawaii state capital of Honolulu or the European city of Nice in France. To be sure, some of these individuals are counted more than once, but even taking that into account, it seems that the number of active Holocaust deniers or people vulnerable to getting sucked into it are very large.
Facebook has traditionally defended the presence of Holocaust denial on their social media platform by appealing to the idea of freedom of speech and “protecting legitimate historical debate”. However, Holocaust denial is a pseudoscience with no real interest in historical debate or freedom of speech. This is no different than saying that creationists do not have any interest in legitimate debates in biology and 9/11 truthers are not interested in legitimate debates about structural engineering.
Pseudoscientific and abusive appeals to freedom of speech is very common. However, they confuses the constitutional right that the government cannot silence you (with rare exceptions) with the flawed idea that private businesses are forced to platform any nonsense whether they agree with it or not. Also, just because someone is criticizing you for your claims does not mean that your free speech is being infringed. Ranting about free speech is not a valid rebuttal to criticism.
What is this new Facebook ban of Holocaust denial?
The ban will have two different aspects. According to an Associate Press article:
Facebook is banning posts that deny or distort the Holocaust and will start directing people to authoritative sources if they search for information about the Nazi genocide.
This means that Facebook is not just banning outright denial, but also historical distortions that Holocaust deniers often engage in. Furthermore, it will implement a system of counter-misinformation by presenting people with credible sources about the Holocaust to people who are vulnerable to be sucked into Holocaust denial on Facebook. This is better than merely a ban, because Facebook promises to take active steps to penetrate the filter bubbles of Holocaust denial. People stuck in these bubbles are often presented with information supporting their worldview and are rarely challenged.
Judging by their own description about their new policy, Facebook does understand the seriousness and severity of Holocaust denial:
Facebook said Monday that the new policy “is supported by the well-documented rise in anti-Semitism globally and the alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust, especially among young people.” Surveys have shown some younger Americans believe the Holocaust was a myth or has been exaggerated.
Indeed, a 2018 survey found that:
Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.
The longer we get from specific events, the less people know about it. While real knowledge of the Holocaust appears to be decreasing, Holocaust denial is alive and well in many parts of society and many parts of the world.
Here is the entire update provided by Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook:
Today we’re updating our hate speech policy to ban Holocaust denial.
We’ve long taken down posts that praise hate crimes or mass murder, including the Holocaust. But with rising anti-Semitism, we’re expanding our policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust as well. If people search for the Holocaust on Facebook, we’ll start directing you to authoritative sources to get accurate information.
I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust. My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech. Drawing the right lines between what is and isn’t acceptable speech isn’t straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance.
Zuckerberg specifically emphasizes that he has seen data indicating a rise in anti-Semitic violence and appeals to a contemporary analysis of the world. Earlier, he stated that he did not think that Holocaust deniers were not getting things wrong intentionally, but perhaps his views have evolved. The decision to ban Holocaust denial is the right decision, but the crucial question is: will their ban crack down on Holocaust denial? Will it make any difference in practice?
What will a Facebook ban mean for the combat against pseudoscience?
Because Facebook has disappointed scientific skeptics so many times before in the past every time it has stated that it was going to crack down on misinformation, it is difficult to say what the real-world effects of this ban will be. Hopefully, many Facebook groups pushing Holocaust denial will be removed and the worst pushers of misinformation will be banned. This can probably be done by manual work even without the use of highly sophisticated machine learning algorithms.
It would also be highly beneficial if people who move around in Holocaust denial circles on Facebook get presented with robust, science-based historical information about the Holocaust. Although many likely suffer from confirmation bias and will ignore it, the information will probably be able to reach some people who are on the fence with respect to Holocaust history and prevent them from sliding into the pseudoscientific swamp of Holocaust denial.
Presumably, the algorithm designers and software engineers of Facebook will also learn important lessons in trying to stamp out Holocaust denial. Hopefully, these lessons can be applied to more accurately detecting and removing other harmful content on Facebook, from anti-vaccine misinformation to terrorism. Facebook banning Holocaust denial might also put pressure on other platforms such as Twitter or Reddit that has also been plagued by it for many years.
That being said, scientific skeptics on social media must continue to be eternally vigilant, reported and combat pseudoscientific bigotry on the different platforms.