Sunday, May 10, 2009

Facebook Shouldn't Have to Censor Holocaust Denial

Facebook's failure to ban groups that promote Holocaust Denial has created something of a stir on tech blogs this week.  Brian Cuban makes a passionate argument against Facebook's policy here, and Michael Arrington takes up the discussion here.

These guys thoughtfully argue that Facebook has set a dangerous double standard.  The company censored a group dedicated to breastfeeding, but refuses to censor a group that actively promotes antisemitism.  They are correct.  This IS a ludicrous double standard.  There is nothing wrong with breastfeeding - it's an entirely natural activity that women should be allowed to openly discuss in any public forum - but there are many things wrong with Holocaust Denial.  The main one being, that it's totally wrong, and the Holocaust happened, and it needs to be discussed and remembered.

But I think Arrington, Cuban and others are approaching this argument from the wrong perspective.  In essence, this double standard exists because Facebook SHOULD NOT have censored discussion of breastfeeding, not because it SHOULD censor discussion of Holocaust Denial.  BOTH discussions should be allowed to take place on the site, to my mind.

In my opinion, Facebook shouldn't censor speech unless it's absolutely vital.  The discussion should only even come up in extreme cases...Essentially, anything that could cause direct, immediate harm to another individual or group of individuals. Instructions on how to make a weapon or commit a violent crime, requests or orders for group members to go out and commit crimes, private information such as Social Security numbers that must not be made public...That kind of speech would understandably be removed from Facebook. 

But, like it or not, a massively-popular website dedicated to free and open discussions will, eventually, attract some odious and repellent contributions.  There are a lot of sick people out there who use the Internet say horrible, untrue, offensive things.

The best antidote to something like Holocaust Denial is not censorship...Quite the opposite.  There is no evidence supporting Holocaust Denial.  Anyone armed with THE TRUTH should be able to outsmart its proponents.  Shine a light on these sorts of pernicious lies rather than trying to hide them.  The cover-up only grants them unearned legitimacy.  Intelligent people who feel strongly about pushing back against hateful lies like Holocaust Denial should confront their real enemies - Holocaust Deniers - publicly, pointing out their factual, logical and moral errors for all to see.  Why cover up something that can be so easily refuted? 

Facebook has now painted itself into a corner by censoring the breastfeeding stuff.  Now, they have no choice but to go around censoring any material that a considerable majority of the site's users might find objectionable or offensive.  This is not an enviable position.  Far better to be very very permissive about what can be discussed on Facebook, limiting censorship ONLY to those discussions which present a direct and immediate threat to the safety and well-being of individuals or groups.  (Holocaust Denial, while offensive to Jews, does not put us in any kind of immediate danger.  People have hated Jews for millennia and we're still here.)

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Anonymous said...

Sorry, denial of genocide is never only offensive to the group that was mass-murdered. It is offensive to any human. Don't you think?

Anonymous said...

I agree Facebook should keep its censory to a minimum. However, it is easy to see why they censored breastfeeding: As Facebook does not wan't to become a porn site, they are extremely anxcious to censor anything even vaguely related to nudity. If breastfeeding-pictures were allowed, suddenly you would have ten groups with people sharing nude pictures under the disclosure of breast feeding pics. That's how the internet works. And that's why Facebook has a strict policy even on material that 99 percent of us don't find offensive.

Brian Cuban said...

I appreciate your comments and point of view.

My point however is not that people do not have the right to debate fringe theories openly but that with Holocaust Denial, it is a fringe theory concocted solely as a pretext for hate speech against Jews. I think you would agree that we can not tolerate form over substance as an excuse to perpetrate hate towards any group of people.


Brian Cuban

Lons said...

Brian -

Thanks for taking a look at my thoughts and leaving a comment. I'm flattered. And of course, I'm not trying to defend Holocaust Denial, or categorize it as something other than thinly-veiled antisemitic speech.

I'm just generally queasy about barring certain kinds of speech from what is meant to be a public forum. I feel this way on two grounds:

(1) It puts a company, an individual or a government in charge of deciding between different forms of speech. In this instance, most sensible people can agree that Holocaust Denial is not a valid form of discourse, and is being used by bigots as a pretext for making bigoted comments. But surely there are gray areas, forms of speech many would find offensive that others might find vital. If a company has a choice between allowing a community to "police itself" and stamping out anything that they're afraid might be deemed "offensive," they should go with the former. (Facebook opted out of this by removing breastfeeding groups and other kinds of "controversial" content, which leaves them no choice but to remove Holocaust Denial as well).

(2) To those who are not familiar with Holocaust Denial, a Facebook group that featured a robust discussion of its flaws and fallacies might actually prove more helpful than a blank page that redirects to Banning the group turns a teaching opportunity into just another chance for bigots to paint themselves as an abused, voiceless minority.