There’s an Internet adage that holds that the longer a conversation continues, the likelier it is someone will invoke Adolf Hitler. Mark Zuckerberg, who took almost no time at all to bring up the Holocaust in an interview released Wednesday, is doing little to disprove the theory.
“I’m Jewish,” the Facebook chief executive said to Recode’s Kara Swisher in a response to a question about Sandy Hook trutherism, “and there’s a set of people who deny the Holocaust happened. 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. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong, but…it’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.”
It’s hard to know where to start with this one, but easier to know where to end: intent. Zuckerberg said after the uproar that he “didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny” the Holocaust. This single-ingredient word salad pinpoints the precise problem with Zuckerberg’s stated philosophy on the lies lurking on his site.
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First there’s Holocaust denial itself. If there’s anywhere intent is not hard to understand, it’s in an anti-Semitic conspiracy that passes off the genocide of millions as something Jews made up to promote their own interests. Assuming good faith of Holocaust deniers assumes good faith of essentially everyone - which is not a workable frame for understanding, much less moderating, the Internet.
But there’s a bigger issue with Zuckerberg’s statement, naive assumptions aside. In the world of right-wing reality inversion, intent is an infeasible standard. More important, it has little to do with impact.
Zuckerberg’s comments conflated disinformation campaigns with everyday mistake-making, and he chose the worst possible example for his point. But he isn’t wrong that sussing out why someone is spreading lies, whether or not they’re doing it deliberately, is a tricky enterprise. There are plenty of reasons people create conspiracy theories, and there’s no binary breakdown between belief and disbelief.
The same day Zuckerberg got “Holocaust” trending on Twitter, Buzzfeed’s Joe Bernstein published a disturbing piece about an alt-right “troll” who turned out to live more deeply within the lies he peddled than anyone realized. The man, Lane Davis, a writer for a shock site called the Ralph Retort, spent his time constructing stories that the outlet’s leaders saw as elaborate entertainment.
The site’s contributors said that progressives were pedophiles, and that 9/11 was a false flag, but by their accounts many of them didn’t really buy into those assertions. The contributors were pushing the boundaries of public conversation and political correctness. They were generating traffic and trying to gain prominence in the red-pill movement in hopes of making a fair amount of money. They were also enjoying themselves.
Then, Davis stabbed his father to death in a fit of what appears to have been politically inspired rage.
“He didn’t get the game,” said Ethan Ralph, who runs Ralph Retort. It was a game for Ralph - he was intentionally getting it wrong, but he didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. It wasn’t a game for Davis - he was addled enough that he may not intentionally have been getting it wrong, but when he stabbed his father in the neck, he did intend for someone to get hurt. Those motivations probably don’t matter much to the woman who lost her husband, or the children who lost their father.
Motivation probably didn’t matter to the customers terrorized inside Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C., when a gunman traveled there in 2016 searching for a Hillary Clinton-affiliated child sex ring, either.
“If you’re not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page,” Zuckerberg said. But not only is it difficult to know what someone is “trying” to do: It also isn’t always that important.
There’s a good argument that filtering reality is an impossible task - that line-drawing inevitably reaches unnavigable territory, and that any solution either stifles too much speech or risks too much injury. So far, no one has proposed a perfect principle for prescribing acceptable content. But “intent” can’t be it, and the fact that Zuckerberg thinks it can is only one more reason to doubt that he’s capable of ruling the realm he created.
Zuckerberg knows he has struggled, and maybe that helps explain why he said what he did. After all, he claims he means well, too. Who cares that he, like the people he excuses of posting falsehoods on Facebook, has made “multiple” mistakes? What he really wants is to connect the world - to bring people closer together, even when they’re on different continents. He misses that his platform is also pushing people apart. Whether he’s intentionally getting it wrong doesn’t matter. We’re in trouble either way.
Molly Roberts is an editor, writer and producer for The Washington Post's Opinions section.