Facebook dances around Holocaust controversy

Facebook's reluctance to delete Holocaust denial groups is nothing new, but has come under heavy criticism in recent days

Facebook just can't seem to stay out of trouble. The social networking site has landed in hot water again, this time for refusing to shut down Holocaust denial groups. Facebook is reluctant to stop the Holocaust denial groups because the site wants to be "a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones," said Facebook spokesperson Barry Schnitt in an interview with CNN. Facebook is trying to "strike a very delicate balance" between freedom of speech while "also ensuring that individuals and groups of people do not feel threatened or endangered," Schnitt said in another interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Schnitt also told the JTA that users living in the 13 countries where Holocaust denial is illegal would be unable to access Holocaust denial groups on Facebook.

Facebook's reluctance to delete Holocaust denial groups is nothing new, but has come under heavy criticism in recent days. Brian Cuban, a lawyer and brother of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, recently published on his blog an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him to shut down groups like "Holocaust: A series of lies," "Holocaust is a Holohoax" and "Holocaust is a myth." In his letter, Cuban argues "those who promote the fringe revisionist theory of Holocaust Denial" are inciting hatred, which is against Facebook's Terms of Service. According to Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities users may not "post content that is hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence."

Facebook counters Cuban's argument by saying that while it finds Holocaust denial abhorrent, the groups do not cross the line from genocide denial to hatred. Schnitt pointed out that Facebook has in the past eliminated groups involved in hate speech such as "Isle of Man KKK," which was removed because it threatened violence against foreigners on the tiny island off the coast of England. Cuban dismisses Facebook's reasoning arguing "Holocaust Deniers are overwhelmingly antisemitic [sic]" and that you cannot separate the inherent racism of the group members from the group itself.

Countless arguments can be made about the immorality of allowing Holocaust denial to flourish online and the serious problems of anti-Semitism and hatred. However, looking at this issue from a purely tech-based point of view, Holocaust denial groups on Facebook show yet again the social network's inability to fully understand and deal with complex issues.

Facebook's premise that it wants to promote free speech is commendable; however, the social network fails to take into account other core values of Facebook users -- not to mention the company itself. The fact is that for the vast majority of Facebook users, denying the historical fact of the extermination of 6 million Jewish people and millions of other so-called undesirables by Nazi Germany is abhorrent. Facebook failed to realize how strong this core belief was when formulating its policy on Holocaust denial, and that is part of the reason it is running into problems now.

The failure to understand another core value of its user base, privacy, gave Facebook headaches in 2007 with the now-defunct Facebook Beacon. The idea behind Beacon was to allow users to share, within Facebook, reports of purchases and other actions made on sites outside of the social network. That basic concept was, on its face, not a bad idea since the whole point of Facebook is to share information. However, Facebook failed to take into account the natural desire of its users to keep some actions and purchases private and to have the power to chose when to share (and with whom) and when not to.

Facebook got itself into another controversy over conflicting values with the recent Terms of Service debacle. When Facebook changed its TOS many believed the social network was attempting to covertly claim ownership of users' personal property including photographs, videos, and personal messages. When Facebook's user base found out about the TOS change, they hit the site with a huge backlash, including the threat of legal action, eventually causing Facebook to revise its TOS with user input.

Let me be clear that I am not trying to say there is a moral equivalency between issues of genocide and privacy. I am only saying that time and again Facebook has been forced to back off from its policies due to poor decision making because it gave too much consideration to one priority while failing to honor other core values of its members including privacy, freedom of choice, protection for minorities and property rights -- not to mention common sense. Someday the site might figure it out, but for now Facebook is caught in a cycle of poor decision-making which leads to heavy criticism followed by a sharp reversal in policy. I suspect the Holocaust denial issue will play out similarly.

Connect with Ian Paul on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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Ian Paul

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