Mark Zuckerberg got himself into hot water Wednesday after suggesting that Holocaust deniers are not “intentionally getting it wrong” while explaining why they won’t be policed on Facebook.
In a lengthy interview with Recode published Wednesday, Recode co-founder Kara Swisher pressed the Facebook CEO to explain how he can simultaneously say he is combating the spread of false information on Facebook but won’t issue a firm rebuke to conspiracy content that claims, for instance, that the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t happen.
“I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened,” Zuckerberg said. “I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong. I think ―”
Swisher quickly interrupted him to question his choice of example.
“In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead,” she interjected.
But Zuckerberg doubled down, implying that there is a good-faith debate happening on Facebook about the systematic slaughter of around 6 million Jewish people during World War II.
“It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent,” Zuckerberg responded. “I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, ‘We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.’”
Critics quickly picked up on Zuckerberg’s comments, noting that his logic casts doubt on Facebook’s ability to prevent another Cambridge Analytica scandal or the additional spread of Russian propaganda during a U.S. election.
“Holocaust denial is a willful, deliberate and longstanding deception tactic by anti-Semites that is incontrovertibly hateful, hurtful, and threatening to Jews. Facebook has a moral and ethical obligation not to allow its dissemination,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.
Amid the backlash, Zuckerberg sent Swisher an email attempting to clarify the comments in question.
“I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that,” he wrote.
His position on whether Facebook would remove such content did not change, however, and he reiterated the strategy of downsizing the posts’ reach in users’ newsfeeds.
The goal of Facebook is not to prevent someone from saying something untrue, Zuckerberg said, but to stop fake news from spreading across the social network.
If something is deemed to be fake, he said, it might remain on the site but it would be pushed down in the news feed so fewer people would see it.
Facebook has struggled over the past year to explain what it will and won’t allow on its service after a series of high-profile mistakes. For instance, human rights groups say Facebook has mounted an inadequate response to hate speech and the incitement of violence against Muslim minorities in Myanmar.
In April, Facebook announced new public guidelines mirroring the rules its reviewers use to decide whether posts run afoul of prohibitions against harassment, violent threats, explicit material and other forbidden categories.
Facebook had previously shied away from providing this level of detail about its “community guidelines.”