Facebook will continue to offer a platform to Holocaust deniers, Infowars, and other publishers of hoaxes on the assumption that they are sincere in their beliefs, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. Speaking to Recode’s Kara Swisher on her podcast, Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, said that Holocaust deniers are “deeply offensive.” “But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” Zuckerberg continued. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
Swisher said that, in fact, Holocaust deniers likely were intentionally misleading people. Zuckerberg said that Facebook could not understand the intent of those publishers and would not try:
It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, “We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.”
What we will do is we’ll say, “Okay, you have your page, and if you’re not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive.” But that doesn’t mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed.
This is not a new position. Facebook has been defending the rights of Holocaust deniers since at least 2009 when it faced criticism for hosting a variety of anti-Semitic pages. At the time, a spokesman said, “We want [Facebook] to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones.”
Zuckerberg’s comments on the podcast came a day after a hearing in which his global head of policy management was called before Congress to explain its content moderation policies. While the hearing was originally intended to investigate the false idea that tech platforms systematically suppress conservative viewpoints, it ended with a bipartisan group of lawmakers pressuring Facebook to ban more accounts, including Infowars.
Last week, CNN’s Oliver Darcy questioned how Facebook could be sincere in its stated efforts to reduce the spread of false news stories while it also offered sites like Infowars a place to develop a large following and routinely distribute hoaxes.
Zuckerberg said one of Facebook’s core principles is “giving people a voice,” and it preferred to limit the distribution of hoaxes rather than ban them outright.
There are really two core principles at play here. There’s giving people a voice, so that people can express their opinions. Then, there’s keeping the community safe, which I think is really important. We’re not gonna let people plan violence or attack each other or do bad things. Within this, those principles have real trade-offs and real tug on each other. In this case, we feel like our responsibility is to prevent hoaxes from going viral and being widely distributed.
The approach that we’ve taken to false news is not to say, you can’t say something wrong on the internet. I think that that would be too extreme. Everyone gets things wrong, and if we were taking down people’s accounts when they got a few things wrong, then that would be a hard world for giving people a voice and saying that you care about that. But at the same time, I think that we have a responsibility to, when you look at… if you look at the top hundred things that are going viral or getting distribution on Facebook within any given day, I do think we have a responsibility to make sure that those aren’t hoaxes and blatant misinformation.
Infowars, which has nearly 1 million followers on Facebook, routinely denies the reality of mass shootings and promotes the idea that the FBI and other institutions are plotting to overthrow President Donald Trump. In 2016, Mother Jones found seven cases in which Infowars fans had committed acts of violence.
Update, 4:43 p.m.: Zuckerberg sought to clarify his remarks with an email to Swisher later in the day:
I enjoyed our conversation yesterday, but there’s one thing I want to clear up. I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.
Our goal with fake news is not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue — but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services. If something is spreading and is rated false by fact checkers, it would lose the vast majority of its distribution in News Feed. And of course if a post crossed line into advocating for violence or hate against a particular group, it would be removed. These issues are very challenging but I believe that often the best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech.