Facing the haters at Facebook

Should Facebook deny Holocaust deniers on its site? Where should the lines be drawn? These are questions with no easy answers

It turns out when you run the world's biggest social network, you inherit the world's biggest social problems. And so it goes with Facebook, which is now under fire for its implicit support of groups that deny the Holocaust ever happened. (And what a lovely group of people they are.)

[ Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Brian Cuban, brother of high-tech entrepreneur/sports franchise owner/twinkle-toed Mark Cuban, is trying to shame Facebook into taking them down. And he's got some high-powered pals like Michael Arrington in his camp. As Captain Crunch unsubtly notes, Facebook has already banned photos of lactating moms:

Pictures of breast feeding babies are indecent, so they're a no go.... But Holocaust denial is totally cool because it fosters open discussion.... why is Facebook so willing to take a stand when it comes to hungry babies, but won't do a damn thing when it comes to the Holocaust. Because they're cowards.

First, I'd like to go on record as being unequivocally pro-breast, lactating or otherwise. As for the other question, it's not quite so black and white. Facebook now has the option of stepping out of the frying pan and into a white hot fire or a bubbling caldron of grease. Either way, it won't be pretty.

If it caves and bans the Holocaust deniers, it's suppressing the free exchange of ideas, even if they are stupid or hateful. If it stays the course, it aligns itself with the flat earthers and those who believe Adolf Hitler was simply a misunderstood house painter with a bad haircut.

Holocaust deniers aren't impacted very much either way. Banning them from Facebook will do nothing. They will always find new rocks to crawl under.

The problem is not so much that Facebook has banned breast-feeding moms (though that is a bit dicey); it's that it has already banned pro-KKK, Nazis, and other hate groups. So it drew a line in the sand a while ago. The question is whether Facebook should scrub out that line and redraw it slightly to the left of the anti-Semites. And then redraw it again when somebody else with a megaphone complains about the next batch of lunatics and haters who've camped out on Facebook's lawn. And so on, ad infinitum.

Any service that becomes an arbiter of appropriate content finds itself in the same bubbling grease pit. Amazon discovered this last month when it attempted to hide "adult" content from its sales ranking and search engine, only to end up inadvertently shoving gay and lesbian books into the closet. It's only going to get worse.

Beliefnet blogger Padmini Mangunta notes that, as a private company, Facebook is not legally bound by the First Amendment. It can regulate speech as it pleases. But she says it has an ethical obligation to allow unfettered speech from groups that, unlike the KKK or the Nazis, do not promote physical harm.

So the question isn't if Facebook has a legal obligation to remove these groups, but if they have an ethical obligation. After thinking on it a bit, I have to say no. In fact, I would say that under the ideals many of us live by, they have an ethical obligation not to remove these groups, provided they do not cause or advocate harm.

Me, I think the best response to nonsensical or hateful ideas is to demonstrate how nonsensical and hateful they are. You'll never convince the true believers (or nonbelievers, in this case) but you might sway those who are easily suckered by zealots. If you're not allowed to talk about it, though, you won't get the chance to change anyone's mind.

Should Facebook ban anti-Holocausters and other borderline groups? Where would you draw the line? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld
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