History lessons and Facebook

History lessons and Facebook

Banning odious ideologies such as Holocaust denial on today’s brave new social media is a fraught issue, with slippery slopes radiating in many directions. That said, there is little doubt Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently inflamed an already ugly situation when he argued that the Holocaust deniers who have set up shop on Facebook aren’t intentionally lying, but are merely uninformed.

No, Mr. Zuckerberg, all the evidence suggests that Holocaust denial is a loathsome manifestation of traditional anti-Semitism. The practitioners of revisionism aren’t misinformed, they are haters who know full well the pain their theories cause in a Jewish community still grappling with the horrific impact of the Holocaust.

This isn’t to say that it’s a simple matter to ban Holocaust deniers from social media outposts such as Facebook; outlawing such malevolent chatter on the internet is a complex matter, with challenging practical and freedom of speech considerations.

Should white supremacists preaching vicious hate against African Americans be banned from Facebook? Probably. Is not Holocaust denial a form of bigotry every bit as loathsome? Absolutely.

But who decides what should be banned and what should be tolerated, no matter how upsetting to some? Imagine, if you will, Israel critics on the far left arguing that Zionist pages on social media forums should be banned because they preach discrimination against Palestinians. 

Zuckerberg tried to navigate those treacherous shoals by arguing that deniers won’t be banned on Facebook but that their visibility would be reduced. Last week, however, there were media reports that posts by Holocaust deniers remain among the top Facebook search results.  Algorithms aren’t cure-alls for human intolerance.

More ominously, Zuckerberg gave aid and comfort to the deniers with his argument implying that denial is more innocent error than deeply offensive and intentionally hurtful ideology.

A clearer lesson from the Facebook imbroglio points to the need for even more emphasis on Holocaust education. Banning the revisionists and other bigots won’t silence their message; educating the people they seek to influence may ultimately prove more effective.

According to a survey last year by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 31 percent of Americans — and 41 percent of millennials — believe that substantially fewer than six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and 45 percent of the overall sample could not name a single concentration camp. Twenty-two percent of millennials didn’t even know what the Holocaust was. That despite all the Holocaust museums, memorials, and curricula in the schools. Clearly, even more needs to be done.

To be sure, it’s not just ignorance about the details of the Holocaust. Do younger Americans have a clue about the forces that came together to cause World War II, or about how fascism and Nazism gripped supposedly civilized nations? In the expanding vacuum of ignorance, hateful theories can flourish.

The Jewish community, seared by memories of the Holocaust, has been a leader in promoting the notion that history matters, creating a knowledge infrastructure devoted to preserving a precise historical record of those events in the hope that it will help prevent future catastrophes. That shaky infrastructure needs to be reinforced. Whether or not Facebook finds a way to rid its vast platform of the pestilence of Holocaust denial, the ultimate answer to this scourge centers on even more extensive and more effective Holocaust education. And as a nation, we need to do much better at imparting a broader knowledge of history to the new generations we hope will know enough to avoid repeating the tragic mistakes of the past.

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