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An investigation revealed that a Facebook algorithm promotes Holocaust denialism

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The study carried out by a British anti-extremist body found that the recommendations of the social network promote conspiracy theories that claim that the Nazi genocide never existed, in addition to anti-Semitic pages

When someone types Holocaust” in the Facebook search bar, they would expect to find pages that allude to the systematic persecution, promoted by the Nazi state, with the collaboration of its allies, and the murder of six million Jewish people in Europe, in concentration and extermination camps. However, according to research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an anti-extremist organization in the United Kingdom, the social network can provide surprises: its algorithm “actively promotes” content such as conspiracy theories that imagine that the Shoah never existed and others referred to characters like David Irving, a well-known anti-Semite and denier.

The ISD identified 36 Facebook pages and groups that deny the historical event that occurred during the Second World War (by which the legal concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity were created to judge some of those most responsible) in addition to many links to sellers of revisionist articles and literature. They also found that Holocaust denial content is easily accessible on Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube.

The report, Hosting the ‘Holohoax’: A Snapshot of Holocaust Denial Across Social Media, looked at what it considers “one of the most insidious conspiracy theories” with supporters “from the entire ideological spectrum, from right-wing communities to radical left and Islamists.”

Noting that “research has shown that digital platforms have only served to amplify and popularize this kind of twisted thinking in recent years,” the ISD summarized its main findings, including that Facebook pages and groups have a total of 366,068 members and an average number of 10,168 members each. On Reddit, the expression ‘Holohoax’ appeared in 2,300 pieces of content, while on YouTube it appeared in 9,500 and on Twitter, in 19,000.

The study, carried out with the chain sampling method, which uses one element to search for other partners and creates a snowball effect, found “that when a user follows public pages with Holocaust denial content, Facebook actively promotes more Holocaust denial content” to that person.

“In analyzing the use of the term ‘Holohoax‘, we found that the dissemination of Holocaust denialist content dropped significantly on YouTube after it made changes to its terms of service in 2019,” wrote Jakob Guhl and Jacob Davey, authors of the report. “If other platforms adopt similar policies, that would likely limit the spread of such materials.” In the case of Reddit, while the number of posts with the word ‘Holohoax’ did not drop in two years, its visibility, on the other hand, did, through resources such as the banning of denial subreddits and the intervention of content moderators.

The publication of the report coincided with a campaign started by survivors of the Shoah from around the world, who with the hashtag #NoDenyingIt publish a video every day in which they ask Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, to remove from the platform anti-Semitic messages that insist that the genocide committed by the Nazis did not take place. In addition to uploading the videos to Facebook, the campaign shares them on Instagram and Twitter.

Zuckerberg has consistently refused to do such a thing. In 2018, in an interview with Recode, he said that Facebook would not remove by default the denial content of the Shoah: “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.” Then he insisted: “We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.’

Although on Wednesday, August 12, the social network announced that it would ban conspiracy theories that Jewish people “control the world,” it has refused to classify denial as a form of hate speech. For ISD, that’s “a conceptual blind spot.” One possible reason – which would also explain why logarithmic recommendations show more anti-Semitic and denialist posts – is that people click on related content, and that generates advertising revenue for the company.

Guhl told The Guardian: “Our findings show that the actions taken by platforms can effectively reduce the volume and visibility of this type of antisemitic content. These companies therefore need to ask themselves what type of platform they would like to be: one that earns money by allowing Holocaust denial to flourish, or one that takes a principled stand against it.”

In the conclusions, the ISD work summarized that, although it is only a case study, the research “shows a snapshot of how we can find Holocaust denialism in four social networks.” And he distinguished: “Specifically, the report highlights how Facebook, which has refused to recognize it as a form of hate speech against Jews, has a small but well-established and ideologically diverse community” from this variant of ante-Semites.

Guhl and Davey’s research found that YouTube, after marking denialism as discriminatory, managed to limit the spread of these posts; He also mentioned that the quarantine that Reddit imposes on these contents made them less visible. Facebook’s position, on the other hand, could be driven by “a conceptual blind spot in its understanding of these issues”: the social network believes that there is a question of historical inaccuracy and not “a direct weapon that some individuals use to attack communities minority”.

The text closed with a proposal: “The ISD study showed how Facebook’s recommendation algorithms can actively guide users towards Holocaust denial content. Preventing its recommendation would be the minimum first step that Facebook could take to reduce the visibility and access to such content”.

A spokesperson for Zuckerberg’s company told The Guardian that posts that “We take down any post that celebrates, defends, or attempts to justify the Holocaust. The same goes for any content that mocks Holocaust victims, accuses victims of lying, spews hate, or advocates for violence against Jewish people in any way.”

In some countries, where the law does not allow the circulation of certain messages about Nazism and the Shoah, such as Germany, France and PolandFacebook deletes this content. But in general the platform “does not remove content simply because it is false,” according to the spokesperson. “Striking the exact balance between keeping people safe and allowing free expression is difficult, and we know that many people strongly disagree with our position.”

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