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Missing the Mark: Zuckerberg's confusion on online lies

Missing the Mark: Zuckerberg's confusion on online lies
Zuckerberg's mistake on mistakes. (GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Defending the right of Facebook users to share lies, the CEO of the social media giant stepped in it, confusing falsehoods devised to attack and denigrate people with other types of misinformation, from mistakes to conspiracy theories.

The Holocaust is one of many “things that people get wrong,” Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview, citing his own Jewishness, before underlining that he didn’t assume that those who deny the genocide are “intentionally getting it wrong.” He walked back that last part in a later clarification, but restated that the network’s goal is “not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue — but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services.”

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Which is to say, Facebook will downgrade such content so it doesn’t go viral, but won’t systematically erase the statements of those who say the Earth is flat, or the Sandy Hook massacre never happened, or climate change isn’t real, or 9/11 was an inside job, or Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or Hitler didn’t orchestrate a continent-wide campaign to exterminate 6 million European Jews.

We don’t envy Zuckerberg as he seeks to write something akin to a First Amendment for an online nation-state with 1.45 billion active users with every imaginable perspective on the planet. (The First Amendment itself, of course, does not apply to a private company, not even one that’s the closest thing the Internet’s got to a public square.) It is devilishly difficult to purge lies while protecting the right to be wrong, or ignorant.

But in the long list of falsehoods we presented, one of those things is not like the other. As the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt points out in a neighboring Op-Ed, Holocaust denial is a form of hate speech, inextricable from the centuries-old smear that Jews are an all-powerful cabal that controls the media and manipulates minds.

Facebook purports to prohibit hate speech, stating that “it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion,” and defines it as “a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disability or disease.”

As a general rule, the best way to defeat false speech is with true speech; Holocaust deniers should be challenged, not driven underground.

But Zuckerberg should explain why a hateful anti-Semitic lie doesn’t meet his platform’s definition of hate speech.

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