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Why Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook won’t ban Infowars and Holocaust deniers

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, recently defended the company’s decision to keep on its platform the site Infowars, a prominent right-wing outlet known for spreading conspiracy theories and baseless information.

Zuckerberg said in an interview published by Recode on Wednesday that Facebook has a responsibility to curb the viral spread of hoaxes and blatant misinformation. But he maintained Facebook should not ban publishers for spreading false claims, a position he described as “too extreme.”

“The approach that we’ve taken to false news is not to say, you can’t say something wrong on the Internet,” he said. “Everyone gets things wrong, and if we were taking down people’s accounts when they got a few things wrong, then that would be a hard world for giving people a voice and saying that you care about that.”

Facebook’s relationship with Infowars has come under heightened scrutiny in recent days. The social network touted its increased efforts to combat misinformation at an event with journalists. But a CNN reporter asked Facebook how it could reconcile this beefed-up approach with allowing a known purveyor of false conspiracies to maintain a popular page on the platform. According to CNN, the head of Facebook’s News Feed, John Hegeman, replied by saying Facebook doesn’t take down false news.

Zuckerberg said if people flag posts as potential hoaxes, Facebook will send the content to fact-checkers who can verify the claims. If the posts are false, Facebook will “significantly reduce the distribution of that content” in the News Feed, he said.

“Reducing the distribution of misinformation — rather than removing it outright — strikes the right balance between free expression and a safe and authentic community,” Facebook said in a statement Wednesday. The company said that in coming months it will change its policies to allow the social network to remove certain types of misinformation that contribute to physical harm.

Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, also said people who deny the Holocaust happened should be allowed to stay on the social network, too. “I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” he said. Zuckerberg added it’s difficult to understand a person’s intent. He said Facebook shouldn’t ban people from the network even if they spread false information on multiple occasions.

Zuckerberg later clarified to Recode on Wednesday afternoon, “I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, challenged Facebook’s policy on holocaust denialism. “Holocaust denial is a willful, deliberate and long-standing deception tactic by anti-Semites that is incontrovertibly hateful, hurtful, and threatening to Jews,” he said in statement Wednesday. “ADL will continue to challenge Facebook on this position and call on them to regard Holocaust denial as a violation of their community guidelines.”

Lawmakers in Washington have also expressed frustration with how Facebook’s decides what content can exist on its network. At a congressional hearing Tuesday, executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter were pressed to clarify the way they police their massive platforms and to articulate how they define false news.

When asked about Infowars, Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, said Facebook removes all content “that violates our policies,” but added that Facebook can remove an entire page or profile at a certain point. She did not explain what that threshold looks like.