Zuckerberg won’t kick Holocaust deniers off Facebook – but Infowars’ Alex Jones just got a 30-day suspension

Facebook and fake news have a long, intertwined history, which is about to get longer if a recent interview by Mark Zuckerberg is anything to go by.

Speaking to Recode’s Kara Swisher, Zuckerberg defended his social media site’s right to continue platforming Holocaust deniers and hoax publishers, in a bid to let people get things wrong.

Zuckerberg, who is of Jewish heritage, doesn’t dispute that Holocaust deniers are “deeply offensive”, but maintains that, “at the end of the day, I don’t believe our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong […] I don’t think they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

This doesn’t preclude Zuckerberg from blacklisting repeat individual offenders, however, with news that Infowars’ Alex Jones has been put on a 30-day “time out” from Facebook. The right-wing conspiracy theorist has been temporarily suspended from the social network after it had to remove four videos violating its community standards. 

Jones is the founder and enfant terrible of conspiracy website Infowars, who has garnered, along with a cult following, legions of haters. The latter group will be dismayed to know that it is Jones’ personal account on which the ban is being enforced, with Infowars page admins conducting business as usual.

READ NEXT: Facebook launches first strike against fake news

And it’s not just Facebook which is taking a stance, YouTube recently followed suit, removing some of Jones’ videos and suspending his capacity to broadcast live on the video sharing platform for a not-so-negligible 90 days. 

Despite its recent temporary barring of Jones, Facebook has long been a proponent of freedom of speech and expression; in 2009 it responded to critics of the anti-Semitic pages it hosted thus: “We want [Facebook] to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones.”

Zuckerberg stressed he was keen not to silence people who make honest mistakes, no matter the context: “I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, ‘We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.’”

One of the main offenders benefitting from Facebook’s lax misinformation rules is Infowars, a page that’s amassed nearly one million followers. Infowars wields a dubious track record of denying mass shootings and spreading conspiracy theories that the FBI is plotting to upend the Trump administration.

READ NEXT: Facebook admits it has power to “corrode democracy”, pledges to tackle fake news

And, while even the best of us have fallen down a conspiracy theory wormhole at one time or another, Infowars’ reality is far more sinister. Back in 2016, Mother Jones unearthed seven instances of Infowars followers committing acts of violence, spurred on by misinformation they’d seen on the platform.

Take Edgar Madison Welch, a man who, back in December 2016, stormed Washington DC’s Comet Ping Pong pizzeria armed with a semi-automatic rifle in a bid to rescue children there from the sordid sex ring managed by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta. Only this ring doesn’t exist. Obviously. But when conspiracy theories like this are channelled through a mainstream platform such as Facebook, they garner clout and traction. And that traction can transpire as tragedy.

But Zuckerberg has made it clear he’s not going to shut them down any time soon. His decision comes after months of scrupulous investigation into Facebook’s purported propounding of fake news, election interference and data harvesting. More troublingly, the social media platform isn’t an awry exception to the rule; self-proclaimed “Front Page of the Internet” Reddit recently refused to shut down openly racist commentary after CEO Steve Huffman recently clarified than “open racism” doesn’t break the site’s rules.

We’re all for free speech, but given that the far-reaching influence such sites can wield, we’d like to a see a little more consideration of what misinformation is permitted, to whom and how far it’s allowed to spread. Otherwise we risk Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” transcending the category of mockable sound bite to bonafide way of life.

Lead image: Mark Taylor, used under Creative Commons

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