Facebook decided on Monday to no longer allow the posting of content that denies or minimizes the reality of the Holocaust. The social network is thus returning to a position it has long defended, which consisted in considering that negationism was defended by the principle of freedom of expression.

Seventeen years after its creation, Facebook decided, Monday, October 12, to equate negationism with hate speech. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the social network, announced that content denying or minimizing the reality of the Holocaust will no longer be tolerated on its platform.

“We will redirect people who search our platform for terms associated with the Holocaust or its negation to credible content on this subject outside of Facebook,” said Monika Bickert, vice president in charge of content policy for the social network, in a press release specifying the contours of this new doctrine.

“Insulting” but not prohibited

The announcement was greeted with relief by anti-Semitism organizations. “Facebook is showing that it finally recognizes the true face of Holocaust denial, namely that of anti-Semitism and therefore hatred,” reacted Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. “It’s good to see that Facebook is taking a position that we’ve been advocating for almost a decade,” said the Anti-Defamation League, one of America’s leading anti-Semitism associations.

But all these organizations did not fail to recall how the road to get there was long and strewn with pitfalls. Because Facebook’s tradition of tolerance towards comments questioning the genocide of six million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II does not result from an oversight or a gray area in the moderation rules of the platform. This has long been a principled position championed by Mark Zuckerberg in the name of freedom of expression.

“I think denying the reality of the Holocaust is deeply insulting, but I don’t believe these words should be banned from our platform just because people are wrong about certain things. I don’t think they are. are intentionally misleading, “Facebook CEO said in 2018 during a interview given to the Recode site.

This stance sparked a wave of protests from anti-Semitism associations, especially since it took place against a backdrop of trivialization of far-right discourse in the United States. A few months earlier, when several American supremacist groups had organized a large demonstration in Charlottesville in July 2017, President Donald Trump had estimated that there were “very good people” among these extremists, some of whom marched shouting “The Jews are not going to replace us”.

“Alarming level of ignorance” among young people

But, in reality, Mark Zuckerberg was only reaffirming a course of action that Facebook had stuck to since at least 2011. That year, social network officials had already claimed that content denying the reality of the Holocaust would not be banned that if they were “explicitly hateful”. A point of view reaffirmed in 2014 and even again in July 2020. Facebook then refused to accede to the request of a group of Holocaust survivors, arguing that the social network was not removing content “only because it was wrong“.

In other words, Facebook until very recently had a “very reductive understanding of what Holocaust denial is, which was reduced to a historical debate, admittedly in very bad taste, but covered by the freedom to expression “, summarizes Jakob Guhl, co-author of a report published in August 2020 on the proliferation of negationism on social networks for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a British research center, contacted by France 24.

“We can be happy to see that Facebook has finally moved on this issue, but also to wonder why it took so long,” notes this expert in online hate issues. Officially, Facebook said it took the decision after seeing “the rise of anti-Semitism and the alarming level of ignorance [de la réalité de l’Holocauste, NDLR] among the younger generations “.

There would indeed be 67% of Americans born in the 1990s who do not know how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust and nearly one in two “Millennials” who are unable to name a camp. concentration or extermination, according to a survey conducted in September 2020 by the Claims Conference, an organization which campaigns for the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust and the compensation by Germany of the victims of the genocide.

Make advertisers happy

But Facebook’s justification seems a little light to Jakob Guhl. “The rise of anti-Semitism is not a phenomenon that began only a few months ago,” he recalls. Already in 2018, when Mark Zuckerberg was still defending the right of deniers to express themselves on his platform, violent anti-Semitic acts were exploding: they were up 70% in France and 60% in Germany, recalls The Guardian.

“I do not know to what extent this Facebook announcement reflects a real evolution of the understanding of the nature of negationism in Mark Zuckerberg and to what extent it is a concession to the recent movement to boycott some of the advertisers”, underlines Raphael Cohen-Almagor, political scientist at the University of Hull who worked on Facebook’s report on the issue of Holocaust denial, contacted by France 24.

The removal of all content questioning the genocide of Jews on Facebook is indeed part of the movement’s demands #StopHateForProfit, a coalition of advertisers and public figures who have been calling on Mark Zuckerberg since this summer to be tougher on hate speech on his platform.

For Raphael Cohen-Almagor, this nuance between ideological awareness and opportunistic decision is sizeable. He has for years criticized Facebook for failing to fully understand that “Holocaust denial is far more insidious than historical questioning.” This is “the idea that the Jews orchestrated World War II, and invented the death camps in order to instrumentalize them and blackmail other nations [afin d’obtenir un État, NLDR]. And for this blackmail, the Jews deserve to be punished according to this theory “, he summarizes. It is therefore conspiracy which, intrinsically,” calls for hatred and violence against the Jews “, concludes the political scientist. And as a result, denial should never have had a place on Facebook, whose rules have always prohibited hate speech.

If banning denial from Facebook is more of a desire to appease the anger of advertisers, the risk is that this ban will only be loosely followed. This is what happened with the conspiratorial QAnon movement: a first round of sanctions in August that had little effect, followed by tougher measures in September when the media noticed that these extremists continued to feel almost at home on Facebook.

“It is clear that we will be monitoring very closely how the ban on revisionist content is applied,” says Jakob Guhl. Because in the face of the spread of hateful and anti-Semitic content, the saying “Better late than never ‘is not enough”. “Better late, well, than never” would be more apt.

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