But Zuckerberg’s absurd acrobatics on Holocaust denial don’t mean that his critics have offered a better solution to the problem, when they call for simply erasing any mendacious material.
There are two reasons why censorship is not an adequate response to bigoted misinformation. The first is that censorship suppresses a symptom of hate, not the source. Silencing speech does not rebut it, and punishing those who express hateful views can just as easily make them into martyrs and lend their views greater notoriety. This is one reason why Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism continue to thrive across Europe, far more so than in the United States, despite the many laws against Holocaust denial in those countries, from France to Belgium. You cannot legislate away a worldview; you need to counter it.
The second reason that censorship is not an effective response to internet anti-Semitism and racism is that erasing online hate erodes awareness of the bigotry in the real world. After all, it’s easy to pretend your society doesn’t have a prejudice problem when your social-media platforms are systematically suppressing all evidence of it.
To take one telling example: In 2012, a blatantly anti-Semitic hashtag went viral in France and soon became the third-most trending topic on Twitter in the entire country. Following the threat of a lawsuit from anti-racist activists, Twitter took down all the offending tweets. In the years since, Jewish targets have been victimized by a wave of brutal and violent attacks. In retrospect, the viral anti-Semitic hashtag was a warning that was swept under the rug. Its popularity exposed France’s anti-Semitic underbelly and made it impossible to ignore, splashing the evidence inconveniently across the country’s social-media feeds—until it was made to disappear.
Now imagine that Twitter had implemented preemptive censorship protocols like those being urged on Facebook and had immediately squelched the hashtag with an anti-hate algorithm: The public at large would never have known about this outpouring of prejudice, leaving it free to propagate unchecked. Think about all the instances of bigotry by those in power—from the racist internet rants of police officers to the D.C. politician who posted a video claiming Jewish bankers control the weather—that we wouldn’t know about if Facebook had instantly censored them. Think of the lost opportunities to address and counter those sentiments.
Truly tackling the problem of hateful misinformation online requires rejecting the false choice between leaving it alone or censoring it outright. The real solution is one that has not been entertained by either Zuckerberg or his critics: counter-programming hateful or misleading speech with better speech.
How would this work in practice?
Take the Facebook page of the “Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust,” a long-standing Holocaust-denial front. For years, the page has operated without any objection from Facebook, just as Zuckerberg acknowledged in his interview. Now, imagine if instead of taking it down, Facebook appended a prominent disclaimer atop the page: “This page promotes the denial of the Holocaust, the systematic 20th-century attempt to exterminate the Jewish people which left 6 million of them dead, alongside millions of political dissidents, LGBT people, and others the Nazis considered undesirable. To learn more about this history and not be misled by propaganda, visit these links to our partners at the United State Holocaust Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem.”