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In a widely-panned interview with Recode, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, last Wednesday defended Facebook’s policy of not deleting content promoting Holocaust denial.
Much has been written since contesting Zuckerberg’s statement that Holocaust denial doesn’t cause harm and that those who promote it aren’t “intentionally getting it wrong.” I want to focus on something slightly different: how Holocaust denial is one of the issues that threatens a broader consensus around free speech.
Free speech absolutists believe that speech shouldn’t be enforced by the government or private entities. They believe this because of their faith in the “marketplace of ideas,” a notion that traces back to John Milton and other English thinkers of the 17th century.
In essence, the marketplace of ideas is the political allegory to the economic theory of capitalism. It states that in a world without regulation from above, the best ideas will naturally rise to the top, and those that are bad will find fewer and fewer supporters as time goes on because they won’t be able to hold their own in debates. It is a fundamental part of Western democracy, which contends that the people will select the best candidate after seeing them all engage with one another’s platforms.
Zuckerberg – like many others in Silicon Valley – is an adherent of this belief. He thinks that as people engage with various ideas on Facebook, those without merit (like Holocaust denial or people who think school shootings in the United States are hoaxes) will gradually fade away.
He is wrong.
Holocaust denial threatens the marketplace of ideas because it subverts the fundamental assumption underlying the system: that everyone is a rational actor engaging in good faith debate.
Holocaust deniers are not acting in good faith. They, like conspiracy theorists before and since, have no intention of engaging substantively or rooting their arguments in anything approaching a rational framework.
Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the great 20th century French philosophers, wrote shortly after the Second World War of how anti-Semitism more broadly subverts the norms of civil discourse. “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” he wrote, as if he were addressing Zuckerberg’s claims of deniers’ intentionality today.
“They know their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words,” Sartre added.
In other words, when one actor is acting in good faith and the other is not, the marketplace breaks down. One person is using facts and seeking truth while the other is purposefully lying to accomplish a selfish and ideological aim.
By restricting ourselves to the framework of the marketplace of ideas, which says that every idea must be debated and not banned, we allow Holocaust deniers to use our own systems of discourse against us.
This is, in many ways, a representation of the broader breakdown in social and political norms that much of the Western democratic world is experiencing. How can the press hold those in power accountable when those in power lie without shame? How can politicians engage with voters who don’t care what is or isn’t true, but simply want their biases confirmed?
This is the key fallibility of the marketplace of ideas: it is bound not by laws and regulations but by norms and conventions. When one party breaks these conventions, anyone who sticks to them is hopelessly outmaneuvered.
It is for this reason that a laissez faire approach to free speech is irresponsible. Facebook is the largest social platform in the world, with 2.19 billion active users each month. It has the potential to facilitate unprecedented communication of ideas for human betterment – but also the potential to facilitate the spread of noxious ideas and evil actors who intentionally subvert its expectations of good faith.
Facebook has an obligation to its users and to society to stop taking a hands-off approach to Holocaust deniers and other users who abuse its belief in the marketplace of ideas. Like any market, Milton’s marketplace of ideas requires some regulation to stop bad actors from taking advantage of the rest of us.
It is past time that Facebook start enforcing the conventions of good faith debate through banning those that abuse them – and that starts with Holocaust deniers
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