Free speech or hate speech: New Facebook policy serves as step in right direction

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Facebook’s decision followed a rise in anti-Semitism on social media and the alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust, especially among young people. According to a recent survey of adults in the US aged 18-39, almost a quarter said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, that it had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure.

Where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech on social media has been a dilemma for quite a long time. While free speech is important, many feel that it should be regulated to not permit hate speech. At the same time, many disagree or aren’t sure where the line should be drawn.

These questions have resurfaced recently in regards to Facebook’s new policy on Holocaust denial. The policy prohibits “any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.” Facebook banned other forms of hate speech relating to stereotypes earlier this year, but Holocaust denial specifically was not previously included in that policy. While free speech is one of our most important and basic human rights, it should not extend to promoting false information regarding significant historical events. 

We can’t ban everything online that might offend someone, but we can do our best to limit the spreading of harmful misinformation. I am very supportive of the right to free speech, yet I can understand Facebook’s reasoning for implementing this policy. Holocaust denial is not just derogatory or offensive, but it also spreads harmful misinformation. For people to spread information implying that the Holocaust didn’t happen (or didn’t happen the way it is documented to have happened), is harmful to those viewing the content that may be young and impressionable. 

“Perhaps that’s because Facebook has quite radically shifted its position on removing hate speech and fake news in recent months,” North America technology reporter James Clayton said in his analysis of the situation. “We’re still seeing loopholes from an old moderating regime being closed.”

This example with Facebook raises questions regarding hate speech vs. free speech and where the line should be drawn. When it comes to St. Edward’s, professors have different outlooks when it comes to hate speech in their classes. Classes don’t often include specific policies regarding hate speech, potentially because the issue has raised concern only fairly recently. I believe professors should at the very least encourage respect between students and discourage hate speech whether or not they have an explicit policy against hate speech. Policies can certainly help and are definitely something to work towards on college campuses.

“While I have language in my syllabi about mutual respect in class discussion, I don’t have anything about hate speech,” writing and rhetoric professor Mary Specht said. A policy encouraging respectful language in class might imply discouraging hate speech. The university might benefit from said policies because something can be done to improve the situation if hate speech occurs, without it simply falling under the category of free speech. As we see policies regarding hate speech and misinformation on social media, we can incorporate those into our professional lives.