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Berlin warns Zuckerberg over Holocaust denier comments

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Insert foot here. Source: Reuters

Mark Zuckerberg should know better. Yes, he’s only 34 years old, but he is one of the richest people in the world and head of the most powerful social network in history. Yet this week he treated the Holocaust as a subject open to good-faith debate.

While discussing fake news in a podcast with Recode’s Kara Swisher, he voluntarily brought up the subject of Holocaust deniers and what Facebook should do about them. Placing his foot firmly in his mouth, Mr. Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, said he didn’t think Facebook should remove content denying the Holocaust, because the poster may not “intentionally” be spreading fake news.

The German Justice Ministry had a swift and firm response. It was quick to remind him that Holocaust denial, whatever the intent, is a hate speech crime in Germany. “There must be no place for anti-Semitism,” Justice Minister Katarina Barley said. “This includes verbal and physical attacks on Jews as well as the denial of the Holocaust. The latter is also punishable by us and will be strictly prosecuted.”

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also weighed in on Twitter. “No one should defend anyone who denies the Holocaust,” he said.

Under the country’s new media law, social networking platforms are obliged to remove obviously criminal content within 24 hours. Violators face fines up €50 million ($58 million). The rationale for the German law is that a historical fact like the Holocaust is not open to denial or debate. Denying it is prima facie anti-Semitic and as such hate speech.

Digging a hole

Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments made him appear insensitive to repercussions of anti-Semitism and oblivious to the impact of Facebook. In the podcast, Ms. Swisher asked him about people who deny that the Sandy Hook massacre of school children took place, even though it is a well-documented fact. The Facebook CEO agreed it was a fact but sidestepped the question of whether he would remoce such posts.

Then he volunteered to take it “closer to home.” So he said: “I’m Jewish, and there’s a whole set of people who deny the Holocaust happened. 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.”

Mr. Zuckerberg then added fuel to the fire when he tried to explain away his statement. “I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that,” he said in an email to Ms. Swisher the next day, even though that was clearly his intention.

“If the post crossed line [sic] into advocating for violence or hate against a particular group, it would be removed,” he said in the email. But the very act of posting a Holocaust denial is advocating hate, which is why Germany criminalizes it. However, the Justice Ministry told news agency Reuters that there have not been any complaints that Facebook has ever violated the law.

Germany, of course, has particular reason to be severe with regard to Holocaust denial or any other form of anti-Semitism. It is particularly sensitive at the moment because of what seems to be a resurgence in anti-Semitism that many people blame on the influx of Muslim migrants.

That suspicion has led to the paradox of German Jews supporting the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), even though that party has neo-Nazi overtones and anti-Semitic outbreaks.

Facebook has long had a troubled relationship with Germany and the EU, mainly because of carelessness with regard to user data. Mr. Zuckerberg was called to testify before the European Parliament in May, though the format was criticized for not giving enough time to question him thoroughly.

The US satirical newspaper, The Onion, had a field day with the Facebook CEO’s remarks, attributing a condemnatory comment to the real-life head of global policy management. “Lies and harassment have absolutely no place on Facebook,” the satirist had Facebook’s Monika Bickert saying, “and we want to express our deep regret at offering someone like Mark Zuckerberg a space to spread his clearly abhorrent views.”

Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the author: d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com

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