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Mark Zuckerberg clarifies Holocaust deniers comment after backlash

"I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive," Facebook's CEO said.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drew criticism for a remark on Holocaust deniers.

James Martin/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg sparked outrage across the internet over a comment he made about Holocaust deniers in an interview published Wednesday.

The Facebook CEO brought up the topic while on the Recode Decode podcast with journalist Kara Swisher in a discussion about the challenges of fake news and disinformation on Facebook.

He said content from Holocaust deniers should not be taken down from the platform because "I don't think that they're intentionally getting it wrong," he said.

"It's hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent," he continued. "I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly."

He did say, though, that Facebook would try to suppress that kind of content by making sure fewer people would see it on their news feeds.

The backlash comes after Facebook has been under scrutiny for its handling of fake news on the site. The social network said last week that it would not ban InfoWars, a right-wing website known for pushing conspiracy theories. "We just don't think banning Pages for sharing conspiracy theories or false news is the right way to go," Facebook said at the time. "They seem to have YouTube and Twitter accounts too -- we imagine for the same reason."

Hours after the Recode podcast was published, Zuckerberg clarified his remarks in a follow-up statement to Swisher. "I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn't intend to defend the intent of people who deny that," he said. "Our goal with fake news is not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue -- but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services."

Asked for comment, a Facebook spokeswoman only pointed to Zuckerberg's follow up remarks to Recode.

Still, the negative reaction to Zuckerberg's initial comments was swift.

"Holocaust denial is a willful, deliberate and longstanding deception tactic by anti-Semites that is incontrovertibly hateful, hurtful, and threatening to Jews," said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Facebook has a moral and ethical obligation not to allow its dissemination. ADL will continue to challenge Facebook on this position and call on them to regard Holocaust denial as a violation of their community guidelines."

Entrepreneur Mitch Kapoor said the important thing for Facebook to judge is the impact of fake news, not just the intent.

"What Mark Zuckerberg needs to understand the intent of Holocaust deniers is not the sole proper standard of judgment," Kapoor wrote on Twitter. "We can debate limits to free expression, but it's the impact that matters greatly, not just intent." 

Carnegie Mellon University professor Vivek Wadhwa said Zuckerberg's comments show he's "so cut off form the world" that he doesn't realize Facebook's impact.

"He lives in a bubble in Silicon Valley," Wadhwa said. "He's insensitive to all this."

Wadhwa added that he thinks free speech should have limits, and that Zuckerberg should take responsibility for what happens on a public forum like Facebook. "Any form of misinformation should not be allowed," he said.

Even Zuckerberg's sister, Randi, said her brother "could have chosen his words differently" as she denounced such people and the "hateful, disgusting rhetoric" of Holocaust deniers.

"Unfortunately, when we give a voice to everyone, we give it to people who use that voice for good and to people who abuse that voice," she wrote in a statement to CNNMoney.

"Organizations doing impactful work now have more powerful tools than ever before, yet the nasty dark underbelly that exists right beneath the surface has access to those exact same tools."

Randi Zuckerberg -- who has worked Jewish community organizations and was among Facebook's early employees -- emphasized healthy debate on the role social media platforms play in the matter and to consider legislating on a national level, as some European countries have done.

CNET's Sean Keane contributed to this report.

First published July 18 at 3:00 p.m. PT.
Update, 3:30 p.m.: Adds comment from Vivek Wadhwa.
Update, July 20 at 7:47 p.m. PT: Adds comments from Randi Zuckerberg

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