Facebook banned Holocaust denial from its platform in October. Anti-hate groups now want the social media giant to block posts denying the Armenian genocide.

facebook mark zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leaving The Merrion Hotel in Dublin after a meeting with politicians to discuss regulation of social media and harmful content in April 2019.
  • In October, Facebook announced changes to its hate speech policy and insituted a ban on posts denying the Holocaust. 
  • However, the ban did not include the denial of other genocides, such as the Rwandan or Armenian genocides.
  • Now, advocates are calling for Facebook to ban posts denying the Armenian genocide, too.
  • From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 million Armenians and expelled another half a million. Turkey still falsely claims that the genocide never happened.
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Anti-hate advocates are calling on Facebook to ban posts denying the Armenian genocide, which led to the deaths of over 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, saying the social media giant's policy on hate speech fails to address crimes against humanity.

The call to action follows Facebook's October announcement that it would ban posts denying the Holocaust, which came after pressure from human rights groups, Holocaust survivors, and a 500-plus company ad boycott. However, the change did not include the denial of other genocides, such as the Rwandan and Armenian genocides, Bloomberg reported.

"They have an obligation to responsibly address all genocide," said Arda Haratunian, board member for the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), the largest non-profit dedicated to the international Armenian community.  "How could you not apply the same rules across crimes against humanity?"

Now, voices from across the Armenian diaspora and anti-hate groups are calling for the company to change its policy. In November, the Armenian Bar Association penned a letter to Facebook and Twitter (which banned posts denying the Holocaust in the days after Facebook did), proposing that they expand their ban to posts denying the Armenian genocide, too. 

"It made us hopeful, because it was a sign that Facebook is taking steps towards fixing its speech problem," said Lana Akopyan, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and technology, and member of the Armenian Bar Association's social media task force. The Armenian Bar Association has yet to receive a response from either company, Akopyan told Business Insider.

The calls to expand hate speech policies come as social media platforms face a wider reckoning on how they regulate speech. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have criticized section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a legal provision that shields internet companies from lawsuits over content posted on their sites by users and gives companies the ability to regulate that content. 

In recent years, Facebook has struggled with human rights issues on the platform. In 2018, a New York Times investigation found that Myanmar's military officials systematically spread propaganda on Facebook to incite the ethnic cleansing of the country's Muslim Rohingya minority population.  Since 2017, Myanmar's military has been accused of carrying out a systemic campaign of killing, rape, and arson against Rohingyas, leading over 740,000 to flee for Bangladesh, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

Facebook's current hate speech policy prohibits posts that directly attack a protected group, including someone of a racial minority, certain sexual orientation or gender, or religion. But the platform lacks a cohesive response to other "harmful false beliefs," like certain conspiracy theories, said Laura Edelson, a PhD candidate at NYU who researches online political communication. Rather than a systematic approach to harmful misinformation, Edelson likened Facebook's strategy to a game of "whack-a-mole." 

"You are allowed to say, currently, the Armenian genocide is a hoax and never happened," said Edelson. "But you are not allowed to say you should die because you are an Armenian."

From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 Armenians and expelled another half a million. However, Turkey still falsely claims that the genocide never happened. 

"Holocaust denial is typically done by fringe groups, irrational entities. The denial of the Armenian genocide is being generated by governments... which makes it a far greater threat," said Dr. Rouben Adalian, Director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington, D.C. 

It also makes enforcement a thorny issue for Facebook, since it may involve moderating the speech of political leaders.

"Facebook doesn't want to wrangle with this issue, not because it's technically difficult, because it isn't, but because it is difficult at a policy level," said Edelson. "There's a government agent here, that you are going to have to make unhappy. In the case of the Armenian genocide, it's the Turkish government."

Facebook did not respond to Business Insider's requests for comment. Twitter said hateful conduct has no place on its platform and its "Hateful Conduct Policy prohibits a wide range of behavior, including making references to violent events or types of violence where protected categories were the primary victims, or attempts to deny or diminish such events." The company also has "a robust glorification of violence policy in place and take action against content that glorifies or praises historical acts of violence and genocide,"a spokesperson said. 

Yet online the falsehoods proliferate, advocates told Business Insider. On Facebook, the page "Armenian Genocide Lie" has thousands of followers, and screenshots of tweets shared with Business Insider show strings of identical posts that appear to be posted by bots, calling the Armenian genocide "fake." 

And stateside, Armenians point to a string of hate crimes, including the arson of an Armenian church in September and the vandalism of an Armenian school in July, as evidence that anti-Armenian sentiment is a growing issue.

The calls for change come amid international conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of  Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan and is populated by many ethnic Armenians. War broke out in September. In November, Armenia surrendered and Russia brokered a peace deal. Tensions continue to flare in the area and videos of alleged war crimes have surfaced online.

"Facebook has a responsibility, first and foremost, to its users, to protect them against harmful misinformation. The idea that the Armenian genocide did not happen pretty clearly falls into that category," said Edelson. 

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which successfully lobbied for social media companies to ban Holocaust denial, is also supporting the calls for change. 

"ADL believes that tech companies must take a firm stance against content regarding genocide and the denial or diminishment of other atrocities motivated by hate," said an ADL spokesperson in a statement to Business Insider.  "Tech companies should, without doubt, consider denial of the Armenian genocide to be violative hate speech."

Dr. Gregory Stanton, founding president of human rights nonprofit Genocide Watch, says that denial is a pernicious stage of genocide, since it seeks to erase the past and can predict future violence. 

"Denial occurs in every single genocide," said Stanton. "I think it's irresponsible.... with Facebook's incredible reach, it absolutely should be taken down." 

As for Akopyan, her fight to change Facebook's policy is personal. Her family survived the Baku Pogroms in Azerbaijan, a campaign in 1990 in which Azeris killed ethnic Armenians and drove them from the city. Akopyan's family left all their belongings behind and fled in the night, Akopyan said. The International Rescue Committee sponsored her family, and she relocated to Brooklyn, New York, at 10-years-old. 

"I grew up in that tension as a child, where Azerbaijani mobs tried to kill me and my family, and I escaped," she said in an interview. "How many times [do] our people have to lose everything and be driven away from their homes to start over?" 

"And it continues to happen," she added.  "I can't help but think it's because there's constant denial of it ever happening to begin with." 

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