Holocaust Deniers No Friend to Facebook

The last thing Mark Zuckerberg wanted to do when he started Facebook, no doubt, was provide a forum for haters.

But the social network site has come under fire as Holocaust deniers have formed Facebook groups with insipid names like,  “Holocaust is a Holohoax.”

Following a campaign led by lawyer Brian Cuban, brother of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, to boot the groups, Facebook disabled two of the worst offenders Monday, while promising to keep close tabs on three others.

"We are monitoring these groups and if the discussion among members degrades to the point of promoting hate or violence, despite whatever disclaimer the group description provides, we will take them down,” Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt told CNET’s Technically Incorrect blog. “This has happened in the past, especially when controversial groups are publicized."

The proliferation of the groups raise questions about Facebook’s responsibility in monitoring its pages, as well as about the Internet’s use as a tool to rally hatemongers.

Facebook has been used to organize people worldwide around ideas and causes – including political campaigns, most famously Barack Obama’s presidential run. With the site enmeshed in the mainstream, even the White House now sports a Facebook page.

Zuckerberg is walking a fine line between Facebook’s promise of promoting a free exchange of ideas and the spreading of falsehoods designed to engender hate. He surely knows that hate, in addition to being morally repugnant, is a bad business model – but so is putting too many restrictions on users.

On Friday, Schnitt told CNN: "Just being offensive or objectionable doesn't get it taken off Facebook. We want it [the site] to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones."

There’s a difference, though, between debating controversial ideas, and arguments of fact. Is a Holocaust denial group intrinsically a hate group? Judging from the venom spewed on some of the pages the groups bring out the worst in some users.

But there also lurks a danger of driving the haters underground – at least with these kind of pages readily findable we can learn what the mental midgets are thinking, and even get an idea of who they are.

Facebook has 200 million users, which in terms of population would make it the world’s sixth largest country. But Facebook is a world unto itself, privately owned and guided by its Terms of Service, which have been interpreted to ban everything from benign pictures of mothers breastfeeding their babies to a group of Ku Klux Klan cretins.

There’s no governmentally protected right to free speech on Facebook, whose Terms of Service  are enforced somewhat inconsistently, some user complain, when it comes to censorship issues.

Here a couple of key TOS excerpts to consider regarding Holocaust denial groups: “You will not post content that is hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.... You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.”

Facebook, if nothing else, is about community. And the one positive note to emerge from this mess is that the larger Facebook community has organized against the Holocaust deniers and helped expose them, getting two bounced.

Thomas Jefferson famously noted that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. It also, sadly, might be the price of using Facebook.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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