That question was posed to the Facebook founder in an interview Wednesday with Recode, a tech news site, about the social network giant’s role in fighting false news and ensuring the safety of users.
Zuckerberg’s answer placed two values in tension: On the one hand, he said, Facebook prioritizes allowing people to express themselves — even if, he said, they “get things wrong.” On the other hand, he doesn’t want Facebook to serve as a platform for harming people or groups.
So while Facebook would not remove a post denying the Holocaust, Zuckerberg said, it would push that post down the News Feed to make sure it doesn’t go viral.
“I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened,” he told the interviewer, Kara Swisher. “I find that 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, but I think …”
At that point, Swisher jumped in: “In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead.”
“It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent,” Zuckerberg said. “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, ‘OK, 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.”
News Feed is the display of items that greet a Facebook user when they access the service. The items can range from a personal update from a close friend to a widely shared news story or video.
There are some cases in which Zuckerberg said Facebook would remove content with false news. The New York Times reported on people in Sri Lanka and Myanmar who used the platform to spread false rumors against the Muslim minorities of those countries, leading to deaths in both places. So Zuckerberg said Facebook is more willing to remove false, inciting content in those places.
Several Jewish figures have criticized Zuckerberg’s statements. Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust historian, said that though governments should not criminalize Holocaust denial, social media platforms also should not give it any space.
“I do not believe that non-governmental entities, such as Facebook, should be posting denial claims,” Lipstadt wrote in an email to JTA. “Freedom of the press means the press should be free of governmental control. It does not mean that the press or social media platforms have to provide space for deniers.”
Lipstadt also wrote that the notion that denial is an unintentional error is “ludicrous.”
“Holocaust denial is no different than Sandy Hook mass killing denial,” she wrote, referring to conspiracy theories falsely claiming that the 2012 school shooting was a hoax. “It’s not a ‘mistaken’ notion of history. It is a deliberate distortion, made in the name of hatred. Simply put: Denial is a form of antisemitism and racism.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, also said in a statement that Facebook should take a harder line on Holocaust denial.
“Holocaust denial is a willful, deliberate and longstanding deception tactic by anti-Semites that is incontrovertibly hateful, hurtful, and threatening to Jews,” he said. “Facebook has a moral and ethical obligation not to allow its dissemination. ADL will continue to challenge Facebook on this position and call on them to regard Holocaust denial as a violation of their community guidelines.”
Facebook has faced criticism from both sides: from users and watchdogs who don’t want it to act like a censor, and from those who think it needs to draw the line on odious conspiracy theorists like Infowars, Holocaust deniers and the like.
“What each side of this conversation has in common, whether they acknowledge it or not, is a fear of Facebook’s 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,” Max Read wrote in an essay on Zuckerberg’s comments for New York magazine.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Deborah Lipstadt’s position on freedom of expression and Holocaust denial. While she opposes criminalizing Holocaust denial, she does not believe it should be given space in the media or on social media platforms. The changes can be seen in paragraphs 10-14.