The Confused Ethics of Mark Zuckerberg – Let’s Definitely Not Judge Those Holocaust Deniers

Bizarrely, Zuckerberg this week used Holocaust denial as the example of free speech that he would not want to suppress on Facebook-

For someone so smart, how can Mark Zuckerberg be so very, very dumb?

Maybe it’s a lack of what we used to call a “liberal arts” education — a foundation in basic philosophy, history, ethics — although they used to teach that stuff at Harvard. Maybe it’s the moral confusion we sometimes see in very leftie liberals who are afraid to offend anyone at any time.

Zuckerberg clearly does not understand that free speech is the bedrock of a democratic society, but that it has its limits. This confusion is very concerning in someone who controls as large a platform as Facebook.

For example: Holocaust denial, which is banned in both Germany and France because of the evident danger to free society posed by spreading poisonous lies. Denying the Holocaust is not an academic point of view or the result of random confusion — it is a deliberate tactic used to sustain and justify anti-Semitism. Those kinds of lies once led to the near-extinction of Zuckerberg’s own ancestral group, European Jews.

But bizarrely, Zuckerberg this week used Holocaust denial as the example of free speech that he would not want to suppress on Facebook.

In an interview with Recode’s  Kara Swisher (one of the only journalists whom he seems to grant interviews), Zuckerberg said when asked about regulating speech on Facebook:

Zuckerberg: I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened.

Swisher: Yes, there’s a lot.

Zuckerberg: I find that 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. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong, but I think–

Here Swisher correctly interjects that this is probably not the case.

Swisher: In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead.

Zuckerberg plows on:

Zuckerberg: 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, “OK, 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. I think we, actually, to the contrary–

That was a lot of words, and none of them very eloquent. Did Zuckerberg just compare Holocaust deniers to himself when he misspeaks in public?

For the record, Holocaust denial is usually the textbook example of why you sometimes need to regulate speech. (Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is another one.) Instead, Zuckerberg is using it as an example of why Facebook prefers to let everyone hash it out in public.

After thoughtful people criticized him on Wednesday, Zuckerberg followed up with a note to Swisher saying he was misunderstood — “I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.” But that explanation still did not reflect an understanding that this is not a subject of debate among people of good will or that Facebook should have a position on this.

Yesterday, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Abraham Cooper said that Facebook officials told the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 2009 that Holocaust denial content would be removed from the platform.

“Holocaust denial is the quintessential ‘fake news,'” Cooper said in a statement. “The Nazi Holocaust is the most documented atrocity in history, allowing the canard of Holocaust denial to be posted on Facebook, or any other social media platform cannot be justified in the name of  ‘free exchange of ideas’ when the idea itself is based on a falsehood.”

Get it, Mark? People who control mass communication platforms have a responsibility to think about the intent of the people using the platform. Uncomfortable as it may be, Facebook morally and ethically must make judgement calls about the content being posted. Those of us in news organizations do it every day.

The same goes for denying that the Sandy Hook massacre ever happened. It is immoral for Facebook to exercise no judgement around this content, aimed at spreading misinformation.

And yes, it’s complicated and sticky and a lot harder than coding Xs and Os.

The reality is that Zuckerbeg is winging it when it comes to making value judgements about the vast array of content on his platform. He doesn’t want to have to make decisions, dammit, that’s not why he started the thing.

Zuckerberg has demonstrated before his extreme discomfort with monitoring content, and his unwillingness to step in and make judgement calls. This moral abdication — this doing nothing — dovetails with Facebook’s profitable but questionable practice of mining the data of his users and then selling it to third parties even when he said he wasn’t doing so.

So now we can add Holocaust Denial to the list of things that the man who controls a communications platform with 2 billion-plus users does not understand.