Back in 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sparked both concern and controversy when he noted in an interview that Facebook would not ban Holocaust deniers from the platform.
As explained by Zuckerberg:
“I find [Holocaust denialism] 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. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
Zuckerberg later sought to clarify his - and by extension the company's - stance, by explaining that Facebook's goal with fake news is:
"...not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue, but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services."
Zuckerberg further explained that while the platform would not remove or block such content, it would seek to limit its distribution, reducing its impact.
But is that enough? Given the significance of such denialism, and the impact it can have, with respect to fueling hate speech, and allowing groups who believe such to proliferate, is simply reducing its reach enough to tackle the problem, especially at Facebook's scale?
As it turns out, Zuckerberg no longer believes that it is - and today, the Facebook CEO has announced a revision in its holocaust denial policy which will see the removal of such comments, entirely, from the platform.
As explained by Zuckerberg:
"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."
Indeed, according to Facebook, there's been a "well-documented rise in anti-Semitism globally" leading to heightened levels of ignorance about the Holocaust, especially among young people.
"According to a recent survey of adults in the US aged 18-39, almost a quarter said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, that it had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure."
Various hate groups have used this, along with other conspiracy theories, to further their messaging, and garner support - which, much like QAnon, another movement that Facebook's looking to stamp out, can permeate into real-world violence.
Yet, even without that extra step beyond just words, the fact that Facebook has allowed blatant untruths like this to proliferate, under the guise of free speech, has long been held as a key sign that the company prioritizes profit over safety, with Zuckerberg's statement on Holocaust denial content essentially became a yard-stick for Facebook's approach.
Now, maybe, things are changing, and Zuckerberg is starting to see the significant real-world impacts that his platform can have, and the division that can be caused by allowing such discussion to continue.
Which could be coming at a crucial time, as more and more investigations highlight the potential damage that Facebook is causing, with respect to facilitating the spread of untrue, misleading, and dangerous content.
- According to a new report from the German Marshall Fund Digital, Facebook engagement with news outlets that regularly publish falsehoods and misleading content has tripled from the third quarter of 2016 to the third quarter of 2020
- An investigation published by Press Gazette in July found that Facebook is the biggest source of false claims about COVID-19, dwarfing other platforms
- The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children recently reported that 94% of the 69 million child sex abuse images reported by US technology companies last year originated from Facebook
In the case of the last point, the UK Government published a paper on Sunday highlighting this as one of the key reasons why Facebook should be blocked from implementing end-to-end encryption across all of its messaging apps as standard. Facebook says that this would help improve user privacy, but various authorities claim that the measures would facilitate illegal activity, like the sharing of child abuse content, by essentially blocking investigation into the same.
When you look at the stats, and consider Facebook's massive global reach, there's, rightfully, significant concern around its facilitation of such claims, and turning a blind eye to these discussions under the guise of free speech. Sure, as Zuckerberg notes, Facebook reduces the reach of some of these theories, but is that enough?
Is allowing clearly untrue content to be shared at all simply Facebook putting its head in the sand, and assisting the growth of dangerous movements for the sake of its own engagement stats?
Of course, the next question then is 'could Facebook stop such, even if it wanted to?'
There are limitations on what Facebook's moderation teams can achieve, and blocking every single untruth and false claim may not be feasable. But then again, Facebook's automated detection systems are getting better, and could be expanded to tackle more of these types of violations.
As per Facebook's most recent Community Standards Enforcement Report:
"Our proactive detection rate for hate speech on Facebook increased 6 points from 89% to 95%. In turn, the amount of content we took action on increased from 9.6 million in Q1 to 22.5 million in Q2. This is because we expanded some of our automation technology in Spanish, Arabic and Indonesian and made improvements to our English detection technology in Q1."
Maybe, then, if Facebook so wanted, it could take more of a stance against different types of misinformation.
But then again, as Zuckerberg notes, he would prefer to lean towards the side of free expression, and allowing people to have their say. But as we've seen, many of these movements which begin as harmless chatter end up merging into more significant, more dangerous territory. An anti-vaxxer, for example, is probably more likely to believe in the 5G COVID-19 theory - and if they believe the media is lying about this, then what else might they be withholding from us?
You can see how these smaller seeds of doubt can start to grow, and as such, maybe Facebook would be better off taking action on each now, rather than waiting for them to germinate.
There's no way of knowing how Zuckerberg and Co. see this, but maybe, with this revised thinking, we could be moving into a new stage for The Social Network.
Facebook says that, beginning later this year, it will direct anyone searching for Holocaust-related terms on the platform to credible information off Facebook.