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Zuckerberg gets tripped up by the Holocaust

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Today we had a very long and vexing debate about free speech. It started when Mark Zuckerberg sat for
 
July 18 · Issue #167 · View online
The Interface
Today we had a very long and vexing debate about free speech. It started when Mark Zuckerberg sat for a rare 90-minute podcast interview with Kara Swisher. As they chatted, Zuckerberg’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, was getting grilled by the House Judiciary Committee about why the company doesn’t ban more pages.
Swisher took the occasion to ask Zuckerberg directly about Infowars, the conspiracy-mongering site that we’ve written about so much over the past week. Why not take down content that says the Sandy Hook massacre never took place, as Infowars repeatedly has? For his answer, Zuckerberg turned to the subject of Holocaust denial.
Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, said that Holocaust deniers are “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,” Zuckerberg continued. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
Swisher said that, in fact, Holocaust deniers likely were intentionally misleading people. Zuckerberg said that Facebook could not understand the intent of those publishers and would not try:
It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. 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.”
What we will do is we’ll say, “Okay, you have your page, and if you’re not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive.” But that doesn’t mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed.
This is not a new position. Facebook has been defending the rights of Holocaust deniers since at least 2009, when it faced criticism for hosting a variety of anti-Semitic pages. At the time, a spokesman said, “We want [Facebook] to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones.”
This is the position that, a few years later, would lead to Twitter to brand itself as the free speech wing of the free speech party. It’s a position that led to the peaceful uprisings of the Arab Spring. It’s a position that American journalists, whose daily work is made possible by the First Amendment, tend to support reflexively.
Some misinformation kills. Other misinformation is relatively harmless. Facebook has taken the position that it generally wants to fight the spread of misinformation while also providing a home base for someone like Alex Jones to amass nearly 1 million followers telling people that Sandy Hook was a lie the government told as a pretext to take away their guns. To use Zuckerberg’s words on the podcast, the reason is that a “core principle” of Facebook is “giving people a voice.”
Zuckerberg, who issued a statement later in the day emphasizing that he was not defending Holocaust denial, has plenty of defenders on the issue of speech. On Twitter, the entrepreneur Steven Kane urged me to remember my history. “Respectfully this is same reasoning the church used to squash Galileo. Why ‘false’ & 'misleading’ information corrupts people! It’s not Facebook’s job to discern right & wrong, true or false. If we give Facebook that power — insist on it — Galileo will get imprisoned. Human history is clear.” (Facebook does not yet have the power to imprison, but point taken.)
Max Read, in an elegant piece for New York, expressed similar discomfort with Facebook as the ultimate decider. 
I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to live in a world where Mark Zuckerberg gets to determine what counts as true and what doesn’t, even if he and I agree about Infowars and the Holocaust. (Especially since he seems to be under the impression that there’s some large portion of Holocaust deniers who are merely misinformed, not actively mendacious.)
This is the impasse that we’ve been at for the last two years (at least): On the one hand, we’re uncomfortable with placing Zuckerberg & Co. in roles where they explicitly act as censors. (And have been extremely critical of Facebook when it has enacted that role.) On the other hand, well, you know, it’s Infowars, for Christ’s sake. It’s Holocaust deniers. Come on! (One common view among smart-tech critics is that we’ve reached this particular impasse because we took a very wrong turn somewhere, and in ceding much of the open internet to companies that sell attention to advertisers, have also ceded even the possibility of a healthy civil discourse. This view is almost certainly correct.)
To Read, what reads as a free speech question is actually one about power. Specifically, what he calls Facebook’s “sovereign power”: “Its power to activate prejudice at scale, by giving Infowars a platform, or its power to cut off a key distribution channel for any given publication.” Read lays out potential solutions to Facebook’s power: break it up; nationalize it; “constitutionalize it” by offering a kind of Bill of Rights for the citizens of the Facebook suprastate. Perhaps different localities within constitutional Facebook would settle questions of free speech according to their own customs — just as Germany has banned Holocaust denial whereas the United States has permitted it.
But it seems to me that none of the proposed solutions addresses the question of violence head on. Facebook’s other core principle, beyond “giving people a voice,” is “keeping the community safe.” Debates over Holocaust denial and Infowars put those principles in direct conflict. If you are a Sandy Hook parent, or a Parkland survivor, or a Holocaust survivor, how does Facebook’s promotion of hoaxes affect your safety? In 2016, Mother Jones found seven cases in which Infowars fans had committed acts of violence. These are not abstract questions.
The limits of free speech is essentially a religious debate, and I don’t expect it to be resolved any time soon. But for now the fact remains that Facebook (to paraphrase Peter Kafka) has a stronger policy against ads for Bitcoin than it does for posts calling the Holocaust a lie — no matter what violence the latter might stir in the minds of those who encounter it.

Democracy
Mark Zuckerberg: The Recode interview
How WhatsApp Pushes Mobs to Murder in India
Instagram’s Growing Bot Problem
Leaked Documents Show Facebook’s ‘Threshold’ for Deleting Pages and Groups
The Biggest Spender of Political Ads on Facebook? President Trump
American Conservatives Played A Secret Role In The Macedonian Fake News Boom Ahead Of 2016
Elsewhere
Meet Jonathan Albright, The Digital Sleuth Exposing Fake News
Alt-Right Troll To Father Killer: The Unraveling Of Lane Davis
Launches
Instagram is testing feature that allows public accounts to remove followers
Reddit added chat rooms, and they’re about what you’d expect
Takes
The death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump
Podcast
Why tech nonprofits are increasingly stepping in for the government
And finally ...
Elon Musk Should Tweet More
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Incitements to violence? casey@theverge.com
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