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Social media’s Holocaust denials are no ‘mistake’ — they’re hate speech

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This week, Holocaust survivors globally are embarking upon a campaign, #NoDenyingIt. It will explain — particularly to social media companies and to their users — why Holocaust denial is not mere ignorance, and why Congress, the U.S. State Department and other leading authorities all recognize Holocaust denial as anti-Semitic hate speech. 

The recently passed Never Again Education Act calls out Holocaust denial for what it is. Signed into law in May with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, it promotes Holocaust education, partly as a bulwark against the “destructive messages of hate that arise from Holocaust denial and distortion.” The State Department defines anti-Semitism as, among other things, “denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).” The Southern Poverty Law Center explains that “Holocaust denial delegitimizes the suffering of Jews, and exacerbates intergenerational traumas by denying Holocaust history, and codifies anti-Semitic propaganda under the guise of academic research.” 

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have suggested that social media giants would behave more responsibly if they were subject to legal liability, like just about any other company, by removing the immunity for tech companies provided under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  

It’s long past time for all social media companies to reflect on their role in enabling the hate speech proliferating on their platforms. Holocaust survivors, many extremely elderly, think it is important even at this stage of their lives to raising their voices with the hope that the Never Again Education Act, as well as the effort to promote Holocaust education and provide a counterweight to denial, is not just an empty promise. Nearly two years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he didn’t think Holocaust deniers were “intentionally getting it wrong.”  In reality, claiming that the Holocaust never happened, that the Nazis didn’t murder 6 million Jews, or pretending that gas chambers never existed, is not an innocent mistake or a misguided opinion. It is intentional, it is anti-Semitic, and it is hate speech.  

Many victims of hate, and their supporters, already have tried to get the attention of social media companies. While this last generation of survivors is still with us, they want to tell the world that Holocaust denial is hateful and dangerous. Such words are reminiscent of Nazi propaganda of the 1930s, when words led to hate, hate led to violence, and violence led to the murder of 6 million Jews. At this pivotal moment — while the remaining survivors are still with us — social media platforms must make a choice. Are they going to turn their backs on Holocaust history and allow the haters to rewrite it, or are they going to help the world never to forget? 

It shouldn’t be too hard for social media platforms to address this problem, since most claim that they won’t allow hateful content on their sites. Facebook’s own “Community Standards,” for example, prohibit anti-Semitic hate such as this. Social media companies also manage to comply with European laws that consider Holocaust denial to be so threatening that it is illegal, so each company certainly has the technical capacity to take these posts down quickly, sometimes in just a day. Here in the U.S., though, where many of these tech firms are headquartered and where 80,000 elderly Holocaust survivors live, these posts remain online.  

It is becoming clear that Holocaust ignorance already has taken hold, and social media companies are contributing to that by giving free rein to the lies that tend to crowd out the truth. More than half of adults in the U.S. don’t know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and two-thirds of U.S. millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was. We have an uphill battle to protect this last generation of Holocaust survivors who so passionately want the world to remember how their families were murdered — and to never repeat the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi era.  

Survivors ask only that social media giants — each with their own vast global voice — remove hate speech. Even better, each should actively support global education efforts by telling the truth about what the Nazis did, to whom, how and why. 

Greg Schneider is executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Also known as the Claims Conference, it negotiates restitution for victims of Nazi persecution, administers compensation funds, recovers unclaimed funds, and provides funding to institutions supporting Holocaust survivors.

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