Is Facebook changing its tune on Holocaust deniers?

Illustration by Jake Turcotte
Until today, Facebook's policy was to tolerate Holocaust denial groups. '[We] believe people have a right to discuss these ideas and we want Facebook to be a place where ideas, even controversial ideas, can be discussed,' a spokesman said.

It's been a rocky year for the kids over at Facebook, who have weathered complaints about their new interface, and a wave of assaults from increasingly savvy hackers. The latest debacle? A brawl over free speech.

At issue are pages maintained by a community of Holocaust deniers, which have raised the ire of critics here and abroad. The loudest voice of protest belongs to Brian Cuban, an attorney and the brother of Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban. For months, Cuban has been trying to rally users against the proliferation of public groups such as the "Holocaust is a Holohaux." Until recently, Facebook management remained silent.

Then last week, Chris Matyszczyk, a blogger for CNET, conducted an interview with Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt. Schnitt told Matyszczyk that, "of course, we abhor Nazi ideals and find Holocaust denial repulsive and ignorant.' And yet, he continued:

....we believe people have a right to discuss these ideas and we want Facebook to be a place where ideas, even controversial ideas, can be discussed. Of course, we have some limits.

In the spotlight

After Matyszczyk's interview hit the virtual presses, the furor over the Facebook groups was raised anew. On the homepage of the Jewish Internet Defense Force, a group dedicated to "leading the fight against antisemitism and terrorism on the web," a recent post decried Facebook's stance:

Facebook rarely, if ever, took action until the media got involved, giving them bad press, and even then, they still did not do enough proactively to rid their platform of hatred.

In a newer interview with CNN, Schnitt told a reporter that Facebook had conducted a healthy internal debate over the issue, and decided, in the end, to let the site stay "a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones." He added a few caveats. According to CNN:

Schnitt said Facebook has drawn the line with pages or groups that attack an individual or incite or threaten violence. Schnitt pointed to the recent removal of the "Isle of Man KKK" page, created by residents of the island off the coast of England. Facebook interpreted the page's advocacy of "cleansing the island of foreigners" as threatening and inciting violence, he said. Facebook receives lots of reports about such pages and actively polices the site, Schnitt said. Last year Facebook removed several pages posted by Italian neo-Nazis after complaints that they encouraged violence against gypsies.

A change in tune?

It was a thin line for Facebook to walk, and many in the blogosphere wondered last week if Facebook would eventually be forced to remove hundreds of objectionable pages. (Among the groups that the JIDF has highlighted, for instance, is "i bet i can find thousands who hate israel, we hate those child killers." The group currently counts upwards of 55,000 members.) As of this morning, it appears that some of the Holocaust denial pages are starting to vanish from Facebook.

The social network has not yet released a public statement, and a handful of the most objectionable groups still remain live. Has Facebook reversed course? Matyszczyk, for his part, isn't sure:

I am waiting for confirmation from Facebook and, perhaps, a statement as to whether the site has, indeed, reconsidered its position of last week, which was that it was better to have these groups out in the open, even if their ideas were "controversial," rather than removing them from Facebook.


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