When initially asked about Facebook’s refusal to remove the InfoWars page, John Hegeman, head of Facebook’s News Feed, said, “I guess just for being false that doesn’t violate the community standards.” More recently, however, InfoWars was banned from YouTube, iTunes, Spotify and Facebook, all within a twelve-hour period.
Although it might seem uncontroversial to keep objectively awful content off social media, historically, censorship and de-platforming has done nothing at all to slow down its spread. In fact, as many conspiracy theories are centered around a victim complex, censorship of any kind can make that complex worse. What has, historically, slowed down the spread of false information is exposure.
In 2009, when Facebook was initially asked to remove holocaust denial pages, their official position was that “being offensive or objectionable doesn’t get it taken off Facebook.” More recently, Mark Zuckerberg said that he wasn’t going to remove Facebook pages advocating holocaust denial, because “there are things that different people get wrong” and it’s more or less impossible to “understand the intent” of such pages. Conversely, the AskHistorians subreddit has pre-emptively banned all Holocaust denial, and strongly urged Facebook to do the same.
Does Facebook Have a Point?
To the delight of an unlikely alliance of authoritarian left wingers and right-wing Israelis, Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Switzerland.
While there can be no reasonable doubt that the Third Reich did its best to eliminate an entire race of people, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses and gays, inter alia, a problem arises when you legally prevent people from saying that this never happened. These governments have taken it upon themselves to censor people’s opinions. The fact that these opinions are incorrect or that they stem from people with a Nazi ideology is irrelevant: freedom of speech is meaningless if you are only free to speak the right opinion.
In 1979, French academic Robert Faurisson was fined 21,000 francs and given a suspended sentence for denying the Holocaust on national television. Hundreds of people (most notably Noam Chomsky) signed a petition, registering their concern about the consequences for civil rights in France. The following year, Faurisson used a copyright-free essay by Chomsky in defense of the general principles of free speech—without Chomsky’s permission—as the preface to his book, Mémoire en Défense: contre ceux qui m’accusent de falsifier l’histoire. Although he specifically rejected the idea that he was defending Faurisson in the piece, Chomsky was subsequently vilified as a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite.
Claims of anti-Semitism are so commonly used to silence everything from the mildest criticism of Israeli government policy to genuinely egregious attempts at historical revisionism that it’s almost impossible to assess such accusations objectively. It doesn’t make things any easier that the Israeli government is quite open about its official organization, hasbara, which trains and deploys people to intervene in any and all criticisms of Israel found everywhere from Facebook comment sections to campus debating societies, and has been criticized by the Israeli press for acting as a “substitute for policymaking.”
What we can say, with some certainty, is that anti-Semitic attacks have been measurably on the rise in Europe and the United States. We may not know for some time whether this alarming rise is causing, or caused by, the recent lurch to the right of the electorate in the developed world.
The Holocaust Denial Mind
The more you learn about the Holocaust, the more grotesque and horrifying it seems. The human mind recoils so much that you may even momentarily entertain the thought that surely such a thing could not possibly have happened. But it is important for the study of history, politics and the human mind to understand that it did.
In 1980, the right-wing Institute for Historical Review, whose mission was to promulgate Holocaust denial, announced a $50,000 reward for anyone who could prove that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. Auschwitz survivor Mel Mermelstein applied for the reward. When they refused to pay, Mr. Mermelstein took them to court and effectively won his case. In 1985, the institute issued a formal apology to Mr. Mermelstein “for the pain, anguish and suffering he and all other Auschwitz survivors have sustained” as a result of their having made such an offer.
If you trawl the dark corners of the internet, where conspiracy theories breed, you will encounter lots of Holocaust deniers. They occupy the same mental space (and sometimes the same physical space) as people who question the JFK assassination, or who believe that the 9/11 bombings were an inside job. The psychology behind these conspiracy theories is easy enough to understand. First, it’s much more comfortable to believe that dark forces are causing these terrible things than to accept that sometimes genuinely awful things happen for fairly banal reasons. Secondly—much like praying to a god—holding secret knowledge about the “real” explanations for significant events gives a sense of control to the kind of people who have often been excluded from avenues of power.
There are two aspects to Holocaust denialism. The first, of course, is to deny the Holocaust: to claim that it either never happened, or has been wildly exaggerated for reasons which invariably include the idea that this is all a marketing exercise to ensure sympathy for the formation of a Jewish state—to assert that all the records were faked, all the witnesses were lying. I’ve seen people claim, for instance, that around 500,000 Jews were killed, instead of the generally accepted figure of 6 million. Only an anti-Semitic mind could believe that killing 500,000 Jews for any reason would not itself be noteworthy. There are also those who claim that Hitler wasn’t as bad as he has been made out to be, and that he was perfectly fair to Jews in Germany.
The second common gambit is to explain at length how Jews are destroying the world, how they only look after their own kind, how they run the banks and the movies, how they’re also somehow in charge of the labor movements, and how the whole world economy is just a front for Jews who want to get rich from the labor of others. Some even urge that the Jews need to be stopped by any means necessary. Though it is rarely explicitly stated, there is a strong undercurrent to this sort of thinking—that no one could really have blamed Hitler for killing so many Jews.
So, according to this view, the Jews were not killed in the Holocaust, and anyway, if they were, they had it coming. As it turns out, the anti-Semitic thread running through all these arguments is precisely the same sort of hateful rubbish that led to an environment of acceptance of genocide. At the very least, the more hate you promulgate towards the Jews, the greater the demonstration of how much worse it must have been when hating Jews was socially acceptable.
In 1987, revisionist historian David Irving published a book called Churchill’s War. In 1993, historian Deborah Lipstadt published Denying the Holocaust, which referred to Churchill’s War and accused Irving of using different standards of evidence, depending on whether or not a piece of information fit his anti-Semitic theories. In 1996, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel. Despite the fact that he purposefully filed the case in an English court, where the lower standards of evidence required made it easier to prosecute a case for defamation than in any other jurisdiction in which Lipstadt’s book was published, the judge ruled that “he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist.”
Irving was bankrupted by the case, and his career was destroyed, as historians pored over his previous works in the light of Lipstadt’s book. In the end, what destroyed Irving was not his repeated de-platforming all over the world, but the presentation of Lipstadt’s more compelling view, backed up by more convincing facts.
In 2005, Austrian police arrested Irving on the basis of a 1989 warrant for publicly denying the Holocaust. During these proceedings, he said he had changed his mind: “I made a mistake,” because “The Nazis did murder millions of Jews.”
One of the problems with fascism, like other fringe political movements, is that it thrives in the dark. The idea that some things can’t be talked about feeds into the victim complex that far-right ideology requires. Censorship doesn’t shut fascists down: it empowers them. Removing offensive opinions from public discourse does not remove them from our lives, but, like vampires, they explode when sunlight hits them.
For Facebook, whose primary interest is in making money, rather than acting as a fact-checking site for political propaganda, mass action on hate speech is very difficult, given that it’s a demand-side rather than a supply-side problem. Although it probably doesn’t feel like it at the time, people choose when and how to take offence. There is always a risk that people will get offended by worthwhile ideas that are nevertheless very unpopular, and safeguarding people from toxic ideologies could turn into babysitting the most offendable users. Catering to the most sensitive members of the audience has a stultifying effect on public discourse, and presumably the more worthwhile values are not so fragile that they require paternalistic protection from being questioned. The best response to bad ideas will always be good ideas and it still counts as censorship even if the thing you’re not allowed to say is incredibly stupid.
One of the prices of free speech is the risk that charismatic malefactors might influence others to do harm, but free speech is objectively more important than that risk. Freedom of speech necessarily supersedes anything you have to say.
The original title of this article was the ironic “Was The Holocaust Really That Bad?” The fact that the title had to be redacted, to ensure it avoided ending up on a list on a server in a dark basement somewhere demonstrates the need for this sort of discussion. The fact that people would have reacted with outrage without actually reading any of the article is part of the problem. Censoring all references to it merely prevents public access to the information necessary to understand why Holocaust denial is such an odious ideology.