Facebook Employees Speak Their Mind On Holocaust Denial

The Facebook Holocaust denial debate rages on. Facebook’s position is clear, Holocaust denial groups and content is fine (nipples aren’t): “Just being offensive or objectionable doesn’t get it taken off Facebook. We want it [the site] to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones.”

Facebook has also said “we have a lot of internal debate” about the issue. And based on what we’ve seen from public comments by Facebook employees, they remain proud of their company’s position on the issue.

The first statement came from Ezra Callahan, currently on the PR team, who wrote “You do not combat ignorance by trying to cover up that ignorance exists. You confront it head on. Facebook will do the world no good by trying to become its thought police.” Facebook Spokesperson Randi Zuckerberg supported Ezra, saying “Really well-written, articulate, and insightful note by Facebook employee Ezra Callahan on being a Jewish employee and supporting Facebook’s policy to not remove groups that deny the Holocaust.”

Over the weekend Facebook employees really got fired up over the issue. Six current and former employees commented on a post I wrote about advertisers starting to balk at their ads being shown around this content. Robert Scoble noticed the debate and started his own over on MobFeed.

There is a common theme – that protection of free speech outweighs any damage caused by the existence of this content. That’s an argument that both eBay and MySpace have thrown out the window, by the way.

I think it’s important that we force our government to stay out of deciding what’s permissible and not as speech, as much as possible. But private companies don’t have the luxury of a Constitution to force their hand, and free speech experts clearly think that private companies can and should make their own decisions on this type of content. They have the freedom to make subjective choices between right and wrong. To lean on the Constitution and argue a misguided notion that they are pursuing a higher cause isn’t just intellectual dishonesty, it’s irresponsible. To see this kind of hateful content with a Facebook logo sitting right next to it makes me embarrassed to be a member. Apparently, most Facebook employees are far from embarrassed. Those willing to speak out are uniformly in favor of keeping the content.

The lone exception, Net Jacobsson, is no longer with the company. That’s a scary signal – one one that isn’t lost on current Facebook employees. The company has a policy and can use the Constitution to make its case. Stand with us or stand apart. Is there really not one single current Facebook employee who thinks this policy is wrong?

The comments are below:

Blake Ross: “I’m a Facebook employee, so I’ll go on record: If Facebook changes its policy on this, it will be wrong, and I will not be proud. Our current policy is correct, notwithstanding your irrefutable citation of a USA Today op-ed.”

Blake Ross: “And just to be clear, I’m speaking as myself, not as a representative of the entire company. I know this blog was confused about that the last time Randi decided to express her thoughts.”

Adam Mosseri: “I don’t understand how one can rationalize censorship, no matter how wrong or evil the message. It’s not the place of government, news media or communication platforms to tell anyone what they can or cannot say. I’m a Facebook employee and speaking for myself, not as a representative of the company.”

Adam Mosseri (responding to me pointing out that he supports all speech, no matter how hateful): “The KKK is a terrorist organization which pose an active threat to the safety of others. Hateful messages to Jews are personal attacks which violate the rights and safety of victims. Denying the Holocaust is ridiculous and deplorable, but forming a group to talk about it isn’t an affront on anyone’s safety. Implying that the senseless murder of a guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC means that all people with similar beliefs pose a threat to the safety of the others is not only irrational, but is also an offensive abuse of a tragedy to further a policy agenda that pays no respect to the victim or his family.”

Ddam Mosseri (continues): “I believe that censoring someone because you disagree with them is wrong, but I acknowledge our obligation to the safety of our users trumps free speech. Taking down the KKK page, which contained specific threads, was necessary. You’re saying that these Holocaust denial groups, none of which seems to have more than 140 members, are presenting a threat to the safety of other people, and I’m disagreeing. These groups are not responsible for the actions of the murderer in DC, and you’re implying otherwise. Undermine my opinion all you like, call me a sheep if you like, but I was open about the fact that I’m an employee – which, incidentally, doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to my own opinion.”

Dave Willner: “Full disclosure – Also a Facebook employee, simply expressing my own opinion. I find your apparent inability to accept that people at the company genuinely disagree with you remarkable. We all totally get that you hold your belief that Facebook’s stance on this issue is the wrong one in good faith. But if you want to seriously claim some sort of moral high ground you should, at minimum, do those who disagree with you the courtesy of returning the favor. The stance the company is taking essentially aligns with the Constitutional restrictions on the US Government’s ability to criminalize speech. Before anyone raises the canard, I totally understand and completely accept that Facebook is not bound by those restrictions. However, I also don’t think that fact is relevant to the moral force of the arguments underpinning the argument. Either using coercive power to censor others except in cases of direct threats to violence is morally dubious or it isn’t. If it is, then Facebook’s policy here is the right one. If it’s not, then the America’s radical free speech protections are wrong. Getting a private company to do the censorship doesn’t change the moral calculus.”

Dave Willner (responding to another commenter): “Thinking carefully and in detail about an issue that affects more than 200 million people isn’t “mental gymnastics”, it a duty. Stop avoiding the question with ad hominems and false assertions. Argue against the argument. If protecting the Freedom of Speech except in cases of direct threat is a moral imperative, then it’s a moral imperative. If you think that it isn’t, please explain why. I am willing to be convinced…but only by actual reasoning, not by assertions of fact, accusations of bad faith, and the statement of simple equivalences.”

Blake Ross: “> at the end of the day you just want to fit in with your colleagues.” I”’m baffled by these odd rationalizations. Facebook is an extremely outspoken and heterogeneous group of people. Employees disagree with each other and the company all day every day, and quite loudly. I’ll be the first to say that we really fuck things up from time to time, but fortunately this isn’t one of them. We’re disagreeing with you because we believe you are wrong. We have the same debates internally.”

Andrew Bosworth: “Jessica – I’m pretty sure you just accused Dave Willner of empty rhetoric in the same post you compare him to a Nazi. Ironically, he is making a valid point and you are doing nothing but spewing hate. Don’t you realize that has real implications in the lives of real people in the world? You aren’t just enabling it, you’re part of it! This argument is a microcosm of the issue in general, at what point is the judgment on hate speech just the majority enforcing its views on the minority? Yelling fire in a crowded building isn’t protected (legally or morally) because it directly infringes on the physical safety of others, something they have a right to in our moral judgement. I think it is pretty clear that these groups pose no such imminent threat. They are distasteful and ignorant to all of us, but they should not be shut down unless they pose a credible threat to the physical safety of others, such as through threats of violence.”

Dave Willner: “Please advance an argument against the idea that protecting free expression except to prevent direct harm is a moral imperative. Thus far, the collective response has consisted entirely of false equivalences, attacks on the idea of reasoning, ad hominems, incorrect/incomplete/misinformed assertions, and accusations of bad faith on the part of Facebook. I will not answer these in detail, since they simply are not arguments. However, since we are now in the business of quoting others, let me add some passages of my own: “…there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” – John Stewart Mill, “On Liberty” “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” – John F. Kennedy “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” – Noam Chomsky “Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.” – Alfred Whitney Griswold, New York Times, 24 February 1959”

Dave Willner: “@David Appletree – You’re still evading the question. The fact that you don’t like the politics of the person making a statement has no bearing on the truth of that statement. I’m not always Chomsky’s biggest fan either. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the matter at hand. @Jessica – While I still do not agree with your conclusions, I wanted to start by thanking you for earnestly addressing the argument directly. Quick note, I’m (still) speaking for myself here, not the company. I do not believe that Holocaust Denial, as an idea on it’s own, inherently represents a threat to the safety of others. While despicable and untrue, it doesn’t not necessarily call for violence against anyone. Any groups which actually directly call for violence, or are so directly racist that their prejudice is a de facto call for violence are already removed….regardless of the idea underdiscussion. I understand that attempting to dispute historical violence could potentially be used to undermine the victims of that violence, but that is simply not a direct threat. Look at the question this way – if Facebook were to remove Holocaust Denial groups, what else should the company also remove as categorically similar? Among other things, it would push the company towards removing any speech arguing that any other historical instance of wide spread violence didn’t happen/wasn’t as bad as the accepted narrative, e.g. 9/11 conspiracy theory, Armenian genocide denial, potentially groups like “Palestine is not country”, large numbers of Serbian nationalist groups that dispute whether break away states are properly countries, etc. Those examples just scratch the surface. I think the crux of our disagreement is the notion you expressed by writing, “We wish to be clear — we have no issues with legitimate political discourse that is contextual, comparative, and truthful.” While I, personally, have pretty definite views on the truth/falsehood of these issues, Facebook as a company does not and should not attempt to judge the truth value of ideas discussed in the content we carry, provided it does not meet a number of very clear exceptions (direct threats of violence, attempts to defraud our uses via spam/phishing, etc). Making judgements about truth value necessarily requires Facebook as a company to have an official version of the history of the world. It’s relatively straight forward to have set views on the Holocaust. But the proposition gets much much more difficult when you try to take on issues that are less well known in the English speaking world, but matter no less to the lives of those they affected. Having a set version of the truth for all events ever/anywhere involving significant violence is an unachievable proposition on it’s face. Plus, it’s clearly censorious and runs directly counter to Facebooks purpose as a communication platform. I also do not believe it’s teneble to special case the Holocaust. First, special casing any event inherently deprioritizes other peoples suffering, which I think is pretty morally dubious. While I totally agree that it was the worst instance of industrialized mass murder in history…I’m very wary of using that as grounds because it strikes me as weak place to think from. If a similar tragedy that claimed more victims happened tomorrow would the Holocaust be any less horrifying? Clearly the answer is no but the “worst ever” logic points to an answer of yes. If we then tried to special case two events, the question becomes why only stop at those two events? Anyway, while you’ve yet to convince me, thank for directly addressing the questions. This kind of discussion is productive for everyone, especially when we don’t agree.”

Dave Willner: “What if someone wanted to post a group entitled ‘Most people who are gay are homosexual due to sexual abuse’? I have no idea whether this statement is truthful or not, but shouldn’t Facebook leave it up so we could all engage in discourse about it? Investigate it? Hash it out? What if someone put up a group called ‘The Bible frowns upon homosexuality’ or ‘Gays can choose not be gay’?….I’ll tell you right now, FB employees who have their own fan page against California Prop 8 would go nuts if they saw such groups and they’d delete them faster than your head could spin.” http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2201212877 http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=150174035284 http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=87767017523 “

Dave Willner: “If protecting the Freedom of Speech except in cases of direct threat is a moral imperative, then it’s a moral imperative. If you think that it isn’t, please explain why.” Likewise, if you think discussion of the Holocaust can/should be handled differently than discussion of the many other incredibly horrible events in human history, please explain why. If you instead believe that it fits into a broader category of tragedies that can/should be handle differently, please specify which events and what criteria should be used to select them. Finally, quoting you above: “The only thing that gets you people to take action is negative publicity, the threats of lawsuits, or government action, etc.” If that were the case, wouldn’t we have already changed our stance? This article isn’t exactly seem favorable.”

Net Jacobsson (former employee): “As a former Facebook employee. I really disagree with their policy on this. This is not about freedom of speech – its about hate. Facebook can as a private company take a firm stance against hate on its platform. Even President Obama, said last week in Buchenwald that holocaust denial is hate.. “To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened,” Obama said at a news conference at the gates of the camp. Such statements are “ignorant, baseless and hateful.” Facebook is a very powerful platform for sharing, spreading information & organize people. I believe that with such a powerful tool demands a higher sense of moral responsebility. It is never too late to change and its is never too late to say “we were wrong”. Again – this is not about the freedom of speech – its about hate.”

Mark Slee: “Michael, you’ve crossed the line here. You are now taking advantage of the senseless murder of an innocent civilian and using it to further your own personal agenda against Facebook’s policies. This behavior is shameful and dishonest. This murder has nothing to do with Facebook. Grow up. Rather than turning this travesty into a tool in your policy crusade, let’s all show the victim and his loved ones the respect they deserve.”

Update: comment screenshots taken from Holocaust denial groups on Facebook today: