Facebook’s Holocaust Alogrithms08-20-2020
Politics and truth, Hannah Arendt reminds us, have never been on good terms. "Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician's or the demagogue's but also of the statesman's trade." And yet, Arendt raises the question of "what injury political power is capable of inflicting upon truth." Her answer is that the assault on fact is an assault on the shared world, the experience that we are amidst our differences, inhabitants of a common world. The danger of lying is not that the lies will be believed--it is that the world we share, the public world in which unique people gather around common ideas and aspirations—wobbles and begins to shatter.
This shared world is comprised of facts, stories, and opinions that, collectively, make up the "ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us." And this common world is, along with the facts and stories that comprise it, vulnerable to politics. Facts and events are fragile things and once they are lost they will hardly be brought back into existence. The chances that truth and facts will survive an onslaught of political power are slim. Which is why Arendt insists that there is no right that allows the politician "to touch the factual matter itself." It may be that facts are contingent and political; it may be that facts and opinions belong to the same realm. But none of this is an "argument against the existence of factual matter, nor can it serve as a justification for blurring the dividing lines between fact, opinion, and interpretation." For when factual truths are denied and substituted for by lies, the result is cynicism: "an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established." And it is cynicism, Arendt argues, that is the true goal of totalitarians: "The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any."
Technology has not caused our post-truth moment. And yet there is no doubt that one reason certain social media sites have gained such popularity is that they accentuate certain needs of people in our time. At a time when so many people are lonely and searching for meaning and purpose, having their beliefs affirmed and even radicalized offers a sense of community and belonging. That is why sites like Facebook and Youtube use algorithms to push content to users that affirms their most radical viewpoints. As Mark Townsend highlights, the danger of Facebook’s use of algorithms is that it pushes ever-more extremist content to its users.
Facebook’s algorithm “actively promotes” Holocaust denial content according to an analysis that will increase pressure on the social media giant to remove antisemitic content relating to the Nazi genocide.
An investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a UK-based counter-extremist organisation, found that typing “holocaust” in the Facebook search function brought up suggestions for denial pages, which in turn recommended links to publishers which sell revisionist and denial literature, as well as pages dedicated to the notorious British Holocaust denier David Irving.
The findings coincide with mounting international demands from Holocaust survivors to Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, to remove such material from the site.
A significant amount of denial content is couched in careful language, codes and tropes. Last Wednesday Facebook announced it was banning conspiracy theories about Jewish people “controlling the world”. However, it has been unwilling to categorise Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech, a stance that ISD describe as a “conceptual blind spot”.