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Google, Facebook and Denying the Holocaust: Should Internet Platforms Limit the Spread of Misinformation?

Posted by Felicity Alma, Thursday 20th July, 2017

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Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Facebook, at the press conference about the e-G8 forum during the 37th G8 summit in Deauville, France. © Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Facebook © Guillaume Paumier

I have always been interested in history, especially when seen through the lens of individual lives during important moments in history - it’s one of the reasons I first volunteered with The Wiener Library. Writing on the topic of the internet, ‘fake news’ and misinformation appealed to me as soon as I read a spate of recent articles on how different internet-based firms react to incidents of Holocaust denial. The recent prominence of ‘fake news’ is not a new phenomenon; a search for the word ‘propaganda’ in the Library’s online catalogue provides over 1600 results from The Wiener Library’s archives. The Wiener Library is a fascinating archive which brings real people’s stories to life through academic research and archives in historical incidents that are often described in terms of numbers and dates, rather than people.

Google, Facebook and denying the Holocaust: should internet platforms limit the spread of misinformation?

The Nazi party's rise to power was in part cultivated by the mass panic and hatred that the Third Reich's propaganda managed to generate. The true depth of the deception the Nazi’s perpetrated didn’t become clear until after the end of the Second World War, when the full extent of the atrocities they had committed slowly surfaced into public awareness. In fact, the documents Dr Alfred Wiener had collected before and during the war were used by the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trial. With that in mind, it is both interesting and disquieting to see similarities between the propagandists of the Second World War and contemporary Holocaust deniers in the way they use and spread misinformation.

According to a survey published in 2014 by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) - an international organisation set up to fight antisemitism - only a third of the world’s population believe the facts of the Holocaust have been accurately reported. The number was as low as 8% for respondents from North Africa and the Middle East. Having grown up with the Holocaust as a significant aspect of the UK’s history,(part of the reason I chose to volunteer with The Wiener Library in the first place), it was almost baffling to me to read those statistics. But, as The Atlantic Monthly put it when they reported on the survey: “The world is full of Holocaust deniers.”

‘Fake news’ has become popular terminology, describing inaccuracies meant to mislead the public. During the 2016 US Presidential Election, this revealed itself as more of a threat, especially when it comes to social media platforms and search engines. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are well-known for their algorithms that present readers with content similar to what they already believe. After all, it’s a sound business plan to only present your customers with things they will like, and both sites are multi-billion dollar enterprises. However, when questionable sources on the internet and social media are a person’s only source of news, this cherry-picking of content quickly becomes an issue.

Denying the facts

As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has noted in their Encyclopedia entry for the origins of Holocaust denial: Holocaust denial has it’s roots in the Nazi regime itself. The Third Reich’s propaganda machine went to great lengths to hide the murder of European Jews during the Second World War. One clear example of this is the dismantling of the Belzec killing centre.

Between October 1942 and June 1943, as Soviet forces approached the area, Jewish forced labourers were tasked with exhuming and destroying the bodies of thousands of murdered Jews and dismantling the Belzec camp before being shot or sent to the Sobibor killing centre to be gassed. After evidence of the centre had been eradicated, Nazi forces ploughed over the land and erected a manor house to further hide what had happened in the area, before Soviet forces finally overran the area in July 1944.

Along with the destruction of physical evidence, many of the records that existed were also destroyed during the last days of the war once it became clear to the Germans that they were going to lose to the allies.

Despite Nazi efforts to destroy evidence, there are thousands of surviving historical sources that prove the Holocaust happened. The Wiener Library contains 2,000 document collections in the physical archives alone, detailing not just the Holocaust, but also the treatment of Jews in Europe before, during and after the Second Word War. That number is still growing, with between fifty to sixty collections donated each year. The Library also hosts the UK’s copy of the International Tracing Service Digital Archive. A collection of over 100 million pages of Holocaust-era documents, the ITS archive contains information relating to the fate of over 17.5 million people subject to imprisonment, forced labour or displacement during the Second World War.

The incontrovertible truth of the Holocaust was even scrutinised in a court of law, when American academic Deborah Lipstadt was sued for libel for referring to Nazi Germany scholar David Irving a Holocaust denier. The case has been adapted into the 2016 film Denial, and the account of the trial can be found at The Wiener Library. Similarly, Deborah Lipstadt and her defense lawyer Anthony Julius came to talk at The Wiener Library in 2015 during a series of lectures on contemporary Antisemitism entitled ‘The New Jewish Question? The Holocaust, Israel, Antisemitism’. Due to libel laws in the UK, Lipstadt’s legal team were forced to prove the Holocaust had taken place as part of her defence - something which they proceeded to do, thereby winning the case.

As late as December 2016, reported that a search of the term ‘Did the Holocaust happen?’ returned a link to a US neo-Nazi group’s website as the top result. Given the nature of the question, it’s easy to see how a young person not familiar with modern history, or a conspiracy theorist, could come away from a research session at the computer with a warped view of recent history. So how can internet-based corporations limit the effects of misinformation like this - and should they?

Gaming the system

Since the end of 2016, it’s become clear that there definitely is something that companies like Google can do - because Google have taken steps to do it.

As the Guardian reported in March this year, Google has instructed its 10,000 quality raters to flag Holocaust denial websites as ‘upsetting-offensive.’ While that may seem a small number of people compared to the vast mountain of information available on the internet, the point is not to have every site viewed by a human being, but to use machine learning to improve the way Google’s algorithm returns results.

What Google seems to be aiming for is a system that is able to filter out Holocaust denial sites and fake news sites without human intervention. Will this work perfectly? It seems doubtful, but having entered the same search term into Google that reported, it is clear the results have changed. Now the first result returned is from USHMM, followed closely by the Fortune article itself. More importantly, having seen highly-ranked false information as a problem, Google are actively attempting to resolve the issue.

The other side of the coin

In contrast to Google’s approach, documents leaked in May show that Facebook takes a very different approach to suppressing fake news. In relation to Holocaust denial in particular, leaked moderator guidelines state that Facebook will only remove Holocaust denial content in France, Germany, Austria and Israel - despite the fact that Holocaust denial is illegal not just in these four countries, but in a further 10 as well. Furthermore, the guidelines explicitly state that Facebook will only apply geo-blocking in these countries, essentially removing the content from the feeds of anyone accessing Facebook in those countries - due to fear of being sued. However, it is worth noting, a minority of countries actively pursue these laws. As stated in Facebook’s moderator training manuals "Less than half the countries with these laws actually pursue it. We block on report only in those countries that actively pursue the issue with us.”  

Is it a matter of free speech?

According to Facebook’s guidelines, yes. But what does that actually mean? The right to free speech allows us to say what we want - within certain limits - without interference from government. Given Facebook’s past compliance with requests to take down content from governments of countries with poor human rights records, their commitment to free speech could also be called into question.

In the real (i.e. non-internet) world, there are checks and balances to our behaviour. We’re constrained by the laws of the places we live in, as well as the social norms of the society we’re part of, but often this doesn’t apply to the ‘Digital Wild West.’ Often the web seems to function as a kind of vast virtual echo chamber, where we can have our own views confirmed back to us by any number of sources, without ever having to engage with people who contradict our own lived experiences unless we choose to. If that’s the case, I would personally be content to put limits on ‘free speech’ for the internet - at least until we find a way to further bring those real-world checks and balances into the digital world. Until that happens, I’ll be guided by the USHMM’s response to a white nationalist rally opposite the museum: “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.”


Works cited:

Doshi, Vidhi. “Facebook under fire for 'censoring' Kashmir-related posts and accounts”. The Guardian, 19 July 2016.

Green, Emma. “The World Is Full of Holocaust Deniers”. The Atlantic, 14 May 2014.

Hern, Alex. “Google tells army of 'quality raters' to flag Holocaust denial”. The Guardian, 15 March 2017.  

Hopkins, Nick. “How Facebook flouts Holocaust denial laws except where it fears being sued”. The Guardian, 24 May 2017.

Johnston, Chris. “Facebook blocks Turkish page that 'insults prophet Muhammad'”. The Guardian, 27 January 2015.

Lipstadt, Deborah. Denial, Holocaust History on Trial. New York: Harpercollins, 2016.

Roberts, Jeff John. “A Top Google Result for the Holocaust Is Now a White Supremacist Site”. Fortune, 12 December 2016.

Schneidermanapril, Eric T. “Taming the Digital Wild West”. The New York Times, 22 April 2014.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Belzec”.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Combating Holocaust Denial: Origins of Holocaust Denial”.

Zauzmer, Julie. “‘The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.’ Museum condemns alt-right meeting”. The Washington Post, 22 November 2016.


Suggested further reading:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Holocaust Denial; Denial; Revisionism; Revisionist Histories; Holocaust; Genocide; Antisemitism; Media


Image credit: Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Facebook, at the press conference about the e-G8 forum during the 37th G8 summit in Deauville, France. © Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY via Wikimedia Commons

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