With the tap of a smartphone, Mark Zuckerberg just had an unfathomable impact on the future of Holocaust education.
He decreed that denying or distorting the Holocaust just won’t fly on his 2.4 billion-user platform. People can no longer hide behind the excuse of “free speech.” It is, declared Zuckerberg, “hate speech.”
The impact this will have on the news feeds of so many people is huge. What is more, Facebook, the gold standard in social media, has set a precedent which other social media platforms will ultimately be expected to follow.
Himmler himself started the work that Holocaust deniers have been doing. Already from May 1942 in the midst of the Final Solution, the Sonderaktion 1005 Unit were assigned to destroy evidence of the crime by exhuming mass graves and cremating the bodies. Himmler spoke in 1943 of the crime and the need to deny it, telling members of the SS in Posen, “The Jewish people are going to be exterminated… this is an unwritten and never to be written page of glory in our history.” With a simple policy change, Zuckerberg has affirmed the connection between denial of the Holocaust and the crimes of the Holocaust themselves. Most importantly, he charts the straight line to anti-Semitic violence today.
Hatred needs a place to germinate and grow, and it has found fertile soil in cyberspace. While driven anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers will find alternative spaces to peddle their hatred, they have just suffered an unimaginable blow.
Almost half of the American 18-39-year-olds surveyed by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) have seen Holocaust denial or distortion online. Removing Holocaust denial from Facebook will not be the end of Holocaust denial, but it will prevent it becoming a visible and acceptable alternative narrative.
If the current trajectory is not stopped, “informed” by social media, university students of 2050 will end up sitting respectfully at the bar, discussing whether it really happened.
Zuckerberg’s decision doesn’t just cut off the Holocaust deniers; it weaponizes what they fear most: historical truth.
Facebook has promised not only to remove denial from their platform, but to direct those searching for the Holocaust to trustworthy sources of information. The decision touches much larger issues than just Holocaust denial; it affirms the statement that not all information is equal, that even in a “post-truth era,” truth matters.
For the world of Holocaust education, denial has for many years been the insurmountable challenge. It is the third rail of Holocaust education which pervades every corner of the internet and makes teachers look away in despair. Even the ecstasy of Deborah Lipstadt’s court victory against Holocaust denier David Irving in 2000 belongs in an era when physical books read by interested parties were the battleground for truth.
An interconnected digital world has created such a safe space for denial which was unimaginable 20 years ago. However, Facebook’s decision emboldens those who care about the legacy of the Holocaust who often feel that it is a fight that can never be won. Having a giant like Facebook calling Holocaust denial and distortion out for what it really is, shows educators and students that we are not alone. It shows that the reality even in the vast digital world, can change, and we as users can now call on the other platforms to follow suit and eradicate Holocaust denial and distortion wherever it is found.