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Facebook algorithm recommending Holocaust denial and fascist content, report finds

Researchers accuse social media giant of treating content as ‘debate over facts’ rather than antisemitism

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Monday 17 August 2020 07:05 BST
Facebook said: 'While we do not take down content simply for being untruthful, many posts that deny the Holocaust often violate our policies against hate speech and are removed'
Facebook said: 'While we do not take down content simply for being untruthful, many posts that deny the Holocaust often violate our policies against hate speech and are removed' (Shutterstock)

Posts and pages spreading Holocaust denial and fascism are being “actively recommended” to Facebook users, research has found.

The social media giant defended its policy on what it called “lies or content that is inaccurate”, but the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) think tank said such content must be recognised as a form of antisemitic hate speech.

Researchers used a popular keyword used by Holocaust deniers to uncover 28 Facebook groups and eight pages that had almost 370,000 followers in total.

“From clicking through to these pages, Facebook’s recommendation algorithm led ISD researchers to further Holocaust denial pages,” the report said.

“Facebook also appears to promote content on the extreme right to those demonstrating an interest in Holocaust denial content.

“The platform recommended to researchers to visit Australian pages supportive of Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and the works of a fascist Italian philosopher.”

Recommendations also included pages dedicated to the notorious British Holocaust denier David Irving and publishers selling revisionist literature.

One of the most popular pages claimed it was expressing “intellectual freedom”, while others claimed they were conducting a “scientific investigation of historical events”.

The ISD said 13 of the pages or groups were dedicated to conspiracy theories, nine were ideologically far-right, seven anti-Zionist, five pro-Palestine, one Christian right and one Islamist.

Facebook said it only removed Holocaust denial content in countries, such as Germany, which have made it illegal and did not take down content for being “inaccurate”.

But ISD researchers said Holocaust denial should not be treated “as a debate simply over facts”.

“This perception ignores the fact that Holocaust denial is a form of antisemitic hate speech, as well as a form of disinformation,” the report added.

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“Holocaust denial has long been one of the most insidious conspiracy theories targeting Jewish communities.

“This speech seeks not only to minimise the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust, but to mitigate criticism of Nazism and justify ongoing attacks against the Jewish people.

“Due to the intimate intersection between Holocaust denial and hate targeting Jews, such content should be regarded as inherently antisemitic.”

The report warned that other digital platforms had also “amplified and mainstreamed” it in recent years.

Twitter was accused of “providing a home to an established and active community of Holocaust deniers”.

Between June 2018 and July 2020, researchers found 19,000 posts mentioning the term “holohoax”, although many were criticising Holocaust denial rather than spreading it.

The ISD found that such content had been reduced on Reddit through a combination of moderation efforts and pushback from other users.

It has also decreased significantly in the past year on YouTube following changes to the video platform’s terms of service.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “We take down any post that celebrates, defends, or attempts to justify the Holocaust.

“The same goes for any content that mocks Holocaust victims, accuses victims of lying, spews hate, or advocates for violence against Jewish people in any way.

“We also remove groups and pages that discuss Holocaust denial from recommendations and references to it in search predictions.

“While we do not take down content simply for being untruthful, many posts that deny the Holocaust often violate our policies against hate speech and are removed.”

Twitter said it used its policies on hateful conduct and the glorification of violence on such content, adding: “We take action against content that glorifies or praises the Holocaust.”

The report was published as faith leaders and campaigners called for the government to urgently bring forward its new “online harms” legislation to make social media companies accountable.

A joint statement said the scandal over antisemitic comments by rapper Wiley showed the “prevalence of hate”.

“We cannot continue to rely on their piecemeal approach to online abuse,” it added.

“Today, we are calling on the UK government to bring forward the Online Harms legislation as a matter of urgency.

“It promised to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, but their flagship Online Harm legislation continues to be delayed.”

The statement was signed by leading figures including campaigner Akeela Ahmed, who is an independent member of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group; Islamophobia monitor Tell Mama; the Community Security Trust; Hindu Council UK, and the Church of Scotland.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Online hate crimes are unacceptable and we want to see social media companies act much faster to remove racist content festering on their platforms.

“We will introduce new laws to place a duty of care on online platforms to ensure they keep their users safe from a wide range of harms, including online hate crime.”

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