International Policy Digest

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Tech /15 Sep 2020
09.15.20

Facebook’s Intimate Relationship with Holocaust Denial

Facebook has been rocked with some pretty negative headlines this year. Claims that the company has a poor tax-paying record and that they regularly intrude on their users’ privacy, have led to many brands moving away from the platform, and even a user boycott.

Facebook’s reality may continue to worsen.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has found that Facebook’s recommendation algorithm frequently directs users to content that denies the historical existence of the Holocaust. The UK-based counter-extremist organization claims that the platform “actively promotes” Holocaust denial content, and that Facebook is therefore responsible for the legitimization of these views.

Facebook and Holocaust Denial

ISD found that if users simply typed “Holocaust” into the Facebook search engine, top results included Holocaust denial pages, rather than groups and pages presenting factual material.

Some of the groups that were recommended contained deeply troubling material. Some had links to notorious Holocaust deniers, while others promoted anti-Semitic material such as the QAnon conspiracy theory. The worry here, says ISD, is that users looking for genuine information on the Holocaust will see this material as equally factual as well-researched, mainstream scholarship. As a result, false information will be treated as factual, allowing for the dispersion of misinformation.

These findings couldn’t have come at a worse time for Facebook. Just last week, the company announced that it was banning anti-Semitic content that claims that Jewish people “control the world,” and has made significant strides in removing existing content meeting anti-Semetic criteria. However, the company remains unwilling to render Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech, or anti-Semitic in the least.

The ISD has referred to Facebook’s unwillingness to mark Holocaust denial as a form of anti-Semitism as a “conceptual blindspot.”

These developments, or lack thereof, do not appear to have affected confidence in the company. Facebook stocks are soaring, though, given the ongoing pandemic and historically low bond yields, this might be due to investor desperation rather than true support.

Legitimate Debate?

In Facebook’s defense, dealing with revisionist content can be difficult. Many social platforms struggle with the legitimization of content over much of the last decade. Facebook’s approach has been to allow Holocaust denial content to appear on its platform in order to protect “legitimate historical debate,” but critics say that this misses the point: Holocaust denial, they say, functions primarily as a way of spreading anti-Semitism, rather than promoting good-faith historical inquiry.

Given the links between Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism recent research has revealed, and particularly the link between denial and support for QAnon theory, this appears to be a fair claim.

It’s not just Facebook that is struggling with this kind of content. In the same study, ISD identified many pieces of content mentioning the term “Holohoax.” This word, often used by deniers, is one that can be found disconcertingly often on social media platforms. ISD found that it appeared 2,300 times on Reddit, 19,000 times on Twitter, and in 9,500 pieces of YouTube content. This data only accounts for published content of the last two years.

Of these platforms, Reddit seems to have had the most success when it comes to tackling problematic content. The platform has explicitly banned revisionism of this type, and moderators actively remove any content that promotes it. They have also banned huge groups for hate speech, and point to the role of the community in removing problematic content.

The comparison of this approach to Facebook’s is stark, but may actually reflect favorably on Facebook. This is because Reddit does not work in the same way as Facebook: notably, users have to explicitly search for content rather than it being recommended to them via an algorithm. Facebook’s reliance on user data can be terrifying, and can lead to some problematic recommendations, but is only to be expected in a system that is attempting to predict the preferences of a billion users.

The Future

None of these issues, however, are likely to affect Facebook in the long term. The company has responded to the research by claiming that they “take down any post that celebrates, defends, or attempts to justify the Holocaust. The same goes for any content that mocks Holocaust victims, accuses victims of lying, spews hate, or advocates for violence against Jewish people in any way.”

In other words, it’s likely that the company will continue to allow Holocaust denial groups to meet and post content on the platform, and will simply seek to improve the way that its AI works with users in order to limit the number of problematic recommendations it makes.

It’s also hard to see Facebook devoting too many resources to tackling hate speech when they have a much bigger issue to deal with: user privacy concerns. As we again enter an election season, worries about the platform being used for political propaganda, or simply to spy on individuals, are increasing. Google searches for how to make Facebook private have spiked in recent weeks, as have the number of articles claiming that there is an epidemic of spyware in IoT devices linked to Facebook and Amazon.

The Bottom Line

In short, it appears unlikely that this research will lead to any real change on behalf of Facebook. While claiming to understand user concerns, they will continue to allow Holocaust denial content to appear, justifying its presence as part of an effort to encourage historical debate.

There is a pattern emerging in which Facebook frequently produces unconvincing claims that they are changing their approach, while quietly continuing to do what they always have. In a company that holds so much political power, this static pattern is cause for public concern.