How the ADL Is Working to End Facebook’s ‘Thriving Ecosystem of Holocaust Denial’

The Stop Hate for Profit campaign targets the company's $70 billion in annual ad revenues to urge Facebook to commit to reforms for curbing hate speech

Alexander Griffing
Alexander Griffing
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Image from an Iranian Holocaust denial website
Image from an Iranian Holocaust denial websiteCredit: Screenshot
Alexander Griffing
Alexander Griffing

Following its years-long effort to fight Holocaust denial on Facebook, the Anti-Defamation League has shifted gears – from working with the tech giant in combating hate speech to helping lead a campaign to force change on the world’s largest social media platform.

The Stop Hate for Profit campaign was launched in mid-June by a number of U.S. civil rights groups. The effort, initiated following the killing of George Floyd, targets Facebook’s $70 billion in annual ad revenues – its main source of income – to urge the company to commit to 10 recommended reforms for curbing hate speech.

And, while much of the campaign focuses on fighting the systemic issues highlighted by Floyd’s death, the ADL’s long fight to get Holocaust denial off Facebook can be seen in the campaign’s call to action.

The ADL, a Jewish organization founded in 1913 to combat antisemitism, partnered with Facebook (along with Google, Microsoft and Twitter) in 2017 to establish the Cyberhate Problem-Solving Lab to fight antisemitism and online hate.

But as the ADL’s chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt, told Haaretz, “Facebook has consistently refused to categorize Holocaust denial as a violation of its terms of service, or ‘Community Standards,’ which prohibit the use of its platform as a vehicle to demonize others or engage in hate speech.”

The sentiment echos claims Greenblatt made in an open letter, where he wrote that while “our partner organizations have been working with Facebook for years,” the company’s ongoing unwillingness to take action is “inexcusable.” The letter adds that in the ADL’s experience with Mark Zuckerberg, “we’ve learned that Facebook won’t take this seriously unless forced” – hence the campaign.

'Factual error'

The ADL’s literature on the subject points to Zuckerberg himself as to why Facebook has never explicitly categorized Holocaust denial as hate speech. The organization highlights a 2018 interview in which Zuckerberg said he finds Holocaust denial “deeply offensive,” but Facebook views it as a factual error – not necessarily antisemitism or hate speech.

“I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, said at the time. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

But even though the new effort is gaining steam with over a thousand companies joining, Facebook’s stock actually set records in July, and Zuckerberg has stuck to his position. “We’re not gonna change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue, or to any percent of our revenue,” he said, the tech news site The Information reported.

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.

As Aryeh Tuchman, associate director at the ADL’s Center on Extremism, puts it, “Holocaust denial is an antisemitic conspiracy theory which is founded on the belief that a global Jewish effort existed – and continues to exist! – to scam the whole world.”

He adds: “Seen in this light, it doesn’t matter whether a person who promotes Holocaust denial is doing so out of malice or out of error; the bottom line is that they are promoting the greatest antisemitic conspiracy theory since 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.'”

As part of the pressure campaign on Facebook, the ADL has also documented how hate speech on the platform has appeared alongside major companies’ ads.

For example, the ADL noted an image of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar transcribed onto an Aunt Jemima maple syrup bottle, her photo placed over the fictitious label “Aunt Jihadi.” In another example, an ad from the auto insurance company Geico appeared alongside an antisemitic post from a George Soros-focused group of more than 3,000 users, accusing the billionaire philanthropist of funding Black civil rights efforts in order to “break down the world order.”

The ADL says companies thus might want to pull their ads until hate speech is curbed on the platform.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg speaking at Georgetown University in Washington, October 17, 2019. Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP

'Facebook's indifference'

The ADL has long chronicled Holocaust denial on Facebook and notes that “a review clearly found explicit denial, as well as the hate-filled and conspiratorial antisemitism common to this philosophy.”

A spokesperson for Stop Hate For Profit told Haaretz in a statement how the ADL’s expertise in this area has added to the campaign, saying, the “ADL has been a critical partner.”

“They’ve brought incredible resources and expertise to bear, particularly in regards to the antisemitism and Holocaust denial that’s rampant on Facebook. What makes this coalition powerful is how it pulls from every corner of American civil society that has been impacted by Facebook’s indifference to profiting from hate.”

Tuchman also notes the difficulties in researching and quantifying Holocaust denial on the platform, pointing out that “unlike Twitter,” Facebook is a “closed system” that doesn’t allow for data trends to be easily collected and analyzed.

Tuchman says his team searched for “Facebook Groups with titles which suggested that Holocaust denial might be present, and then delved into their contents.”

On its website, the ADL lists several Facebook groups dedicated to Holocaust denial and names individuals linked to white supremacy and neo-Nazism who moderate or periodically post in those groups.

This research covers pages that are visible to the public, private groups where you must be approved as a member, and individual Facebook accounts. Tuchman notes that his team has found “a thriving ecosystem of Holocaust denial in those groups. Looking at the personal pages of some of the participants we saw that they were also posting Holocaust denial content outside the groups.”

Greenblatt adds that “as a result of Facebook’s refusal to categorize Holocaust denial as a form of antisemitic hate speech, this rhetoric appears across the platform, including in both public and private groups specifically devoted to the topic.”

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