Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has once again found himself in the center of a controversy over the spread of fake news across the social platform. After saying that Holocaust deniers weren’t “intentionally” getting their facts wrong, thus defending their right to share misinformation on Facebook, Zuckerberg has issued a clarification.
“I’m Jewish and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened,” Zuckerberg initially said in an interview with Recode on Wednesday. “I find it 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.”
During the 90-minute interview, Zuckerberg discussed the several privacy issues that have plagued his PR team, acknowledging Russian election meddling and his company’s own accountability. Yet, according to interviewer Kara Swisher, his defense of Holocaust deniers was “unprompted” after she asked how Facebook was attempting to limit the outreach of fake news. Zuckerberg’s response had suggested that intention needed to be considered before the false information could be removed.
Backlash towards Zuckerberg’s statement was swift, noting that a Holocaust denier’s “intention” should be irrelevant when removing factual errors from mass dissemination. In less than six hours after the interview was published, Zuckerberg sent an email to Swisher to clarify his opinion and insist that giving Holocaust deniers the benefit of the doubt was never his intention.
“I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that,” Zuckerberg said in an email to Swisher that was published on Recode. He then went on to insist that such speculation on a denier’s intent would have no influence in whether a factually inaccurate article was removed.
“If something is spreading and is rated false by fact checkers, it would lose the vast majority of its distribution in News Feed,” he said. “And of course if a post crossed a line into advocating for violence or hate against a particular group, it would be removed.”
However, after Swisher released the full transcript of the original interview, it’s clear that Zuckerberg had not only brought up the idea of considering one’s intention in posting fake news but doubled down on its relevance in assessing the case for removal. After Swisher disagreed with him regarding the intentions of Holocaust deniers, he argued:
It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. 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.” What we will do is we’ll say, “Okay, you have your page, and if you’re not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive.” But that doesn’t mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed.
If Zuckerberg’s team is, in fact, assessing intention when adjusting a story’s pervasiveness, it prioritizes subjectivity over basic fact-checking. It’s worth noting that even in his clarification, Zuckerberg states that an article “rated false by fact checkers” would only “lose the vast majority of its distribution,” but not be flat-out removed, a practice he has used in other high-profile instances of fake news, such as in the case in Myanmar when Facebook removed anti-Muslim false articles. Adjusting an article’s visibility is not the same as removing it from the platform, and it remains unclear why Holocaust-denying literature seems to receive a subjective layer of protection.