This article is part of a broader week-long series on free speech. Check here for other components of the series. 

On October 12, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be banning Holocaust denial and distortion from its platforms, including Instagram. Three days later, a spokesperson for Twitter said in a statement that the social media platform would follow in Facebook’s footsteps. However, it is uncertain if Twitter will follow through on this claim, as, in an October 28 Senate hearing, CEO Jack Dorsey said that Twitter lacks a policy to remove Holocaust denial from its website. Both Facebook and Twitter are private companies, and thus can filter what speech is allowed on their platforms, so long as it is legal in the country in which they are operating. While some countries do not have laws regarding hate speech, whether online or not, other countries have robust legislation dictating what is allowed on social media platforms. 

Online Holocaust Denial

Holocaust deniers joined internet platforms early in the digital age, with some even having an online presence in the 1980s. Since then, the movement has become part of larger alt-right and white supremacist movements, which also use Holocaust “humor” to both question the legitimacy of the Holocaust and celebrate it. Holocaust denial, and antisemitism more generally, is easy to find on social media and is even promoted by its algorithms. An August 2020 report found that, when someone types “holocaust” into its search function, the Facebook algorithm first suggests Holocaust denial pages. During summer 2020, TikTok’s algorithm promoted content creating memes out of the Holocaust. The app has since announced that it will explicitly ban videos promoting Holocaust denial, as well as hateful content targeting Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ+ people, and other minorities. Further, both companies have reported that they will abide by European countries’ laws against online hate speech. 

Hate Speech Laws

Germany, in particular, has strict laws governing acceptable speech, both in-person and online. Germany’s hate speech laws stem from its history of Nazism, which was in part able to rise through the ideology’s use of racist and antisemitic language. Thus, Germany’s laws against hate speech not only make inciting hatred against national, religious, ethnic, or racial groups illegal, but Holocaust denial or the use of Nazi symbols in public is also a cause for arrest. In 2017, Germany attempted to further regulate speech online through its Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG). 

NetzDG applies to social media sites with over two million German users. It states that social media companies must remove illegal, racist, or incendiary posts from their platforms within 24 hours, or face fines of up to $57 million USD. A proposed upgrade to the law would also allow these companies to report hate speech to local authorities, which would entail revealing people’s personal information. The law has several critics, including free speech and privacy advocates on one hand, who perceive the legislation as invasive, and those who believe it does not go far enough to protect against hate speech, on the other. 

Other countries, including Russia, Austria, and France, have passed bills that follow similar guidelines for social media companies. However, in France, the Constitutional Council, a top court, struck down the bill, stating that it is not compatible with the country’s constitution, as the Council ruled that it “[infringes] upon the exercise of freedom of expression and communication in a way that is not suitable, necessary, and proportionate.” Countries outside of Europe have passed similar versions of NetzDG as well, including Venezuela, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Turkey. However, as some of these regimes trend towards authoritarianism, it has led some to further criticize Germany’s law as denying free speech.

It is unclear how effective Germany’s law actually is in both preventing hate speech and its impact on targeted groups. Internet trolls remain anonymous, and, through reporting posts, have taken advantage of NetzDG to force those they disagree with off social media. Further, in regards to Holocaust denial and antisemitism, Germany’s efforts online have not yet translated into real-world outcomes. According to Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, antisemitic crimes increased by 13 percent in Germany from 2018 to 2019. In October 2019, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, an armed right-wing extremist tried to enter a synagogue in the city of Halle. While he could not enter the synagogue, he shot and killed two bystanders outside. The shooter was an active user on online right-wing forums, and during his trial, he made antisemitic remarks. 

In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 2,107 cases of antisemitic assault, vandalism, and harassment in 2019. From 2018 to 2019, antisemitic incidents increased by 12 percent, which was the highest number of antisemitic incidents in the United States since the ADL began recording them in 1979. However, in contrast to Germany, in the United States, Holocaust denial — as well as Nazi ideology and antisemitic speech more generally — is protected under the first amendment, which includes freedom of speech. Thus, the similarity between the number of antisemitic cases in 2019 for Germany and the United States begs the question of how effective hate speech laws are in preventing hate crimes. 

For democratic governments, the balance between fighting hate speech while upholding the right to free speech is a hard one to find. As the case of Germany demonstrates, people on both sides of the debate will not be happy with the government’s decision. Nonetheless, while the effect of hate speech laws is unclear, in the Internet age, governments and social media platforms must make some attempt to prevent hateful ideologies from spreading and becoming mainstream.

Edited by Dana Malapit.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image designed by Olivia Yu