Facebook’s own recommendation algorithm is dragging people deeper into the world of Holocaust deniers by “actively promoting” similar content to its users, a new study has found.
The study was conducted by Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank, and found that simply typing the word “holocaust” into Facebook’s search engine results in suggestions for denial pages, which in turn recommend links to publishers that sell revisionist and denial literature, as well as pages dedicated to the notorious British Holocaust denier David Irving.
After a user joins one of these communities, Facebook’s algorithm “leads you towards just more political extreme-right pages,” Jakob Guhl, ISD research coordinator and co-author of the report, told VICE News.
As well as Irving fan sites, the algorithm suggested the researcher follow an Australian extreme right page whose profile picture is an image of Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Other recommended pages included those dedicated to the works of the fascist Italian philosopher Julius Evola, and pages published by a New Right publishing company.
Guhl added that Holocaust denial content on Facebook would routinely be interspersed with other conspiracy theories such as those involving the Rothschilds, 5G, and vaccinations.
The dangerous power of Facebook’s algorithm was highlighted in a recent internal company report found that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools” with most of the activity coming from the platform’s “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” algorithms.
“Our recommendation systems grow the problem,” the internal study, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, said.
The ISD researchers found at least 36 public Facebook groups that are specifically dedicated to Holocaust denial or that host such content. In total, they had 366,068 followers, but the researchers said the scope of their study meant that “it is likely that this research merely scratches the surface of a larger and more pervasive phenomenon.”
The findings will add to mounting international pressure on Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who have consistently refused to categorize Holocaust denial as a violation of the platform’s Community Standards.
In July 2018 Zuckerberg said he finds Holocaust denial “deeply offensive,” but that the company views the refusal to acknowledge the attempted genocide of European Jews as a simple factual error.
“I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” Zuckerberg said. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
ISD describes Facebook and Zuckerberg’s stance as a “conceptual blind spot” and Guhl says the company is hiding behind the First Amendment.
“I think that the root of it, obviously, is that in many countries [Holocaust denial] isn't illegal, and within the U.S. there's quite a strong emphasis on the First Amendment, which just doesn't even cover hate speech really, and certainly wouldn't cover Holocaust denial,” Guhl said.
Facebook is not alone in taking this stance: Twitter’s policy also allows Holocaust denial content to remain on its platform. But Guhl pointed out that both YouTube and Reddit saw significant reductions in the amount of Holocaust denial content on their platforms after they both introduced polices to outlaw it.
The study found 9,500 mentions of the term “holohoax” — a term used by deniers — on YouTube between June 2018 and July 2020, but almost all of these mentions came before June 2019, when YouTube introduced a specific policy that banned content denying that “well-documented violent events” such as the Holocaust or the Sandy Hook massacre took place.
“An analysis of the volume of these mentions over time reveals a dramatic drop in content around spring 2019, demonstrating the effectiveness of YouTube’s ban on Holocaust denial content,” ISD’s report said.
Cover: Photo taken in April 2019 shows Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking at a developers conference in San Jose, California. (Kyodo via AP Images)