The iconic entrance gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp that reads "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Sets You Free) seen on the 83rd anniversary of the first transport of Poles to the Auschwitz camp at Oswiecim, Poland on June 14, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Omar Marques-Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The iconic entrance gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp that reads "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Sets You Free) seen on the 83rd anniversary of the first transport of Poles to the Auschwitz camp at Oswiecim, Poland on June 14, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Omar Marques-Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Meta is failing to catch memes and innuendo promoting Holocaust denial, oversight panel concludes

(JTA) – An Instagram post using a SpongeBob SquarePants meme to promote Holocaust denial managed to evade Meta’s system for removing such content, raising questions about the company’s ability to combat certain indirect forms of hate speech, an independent oversight panel concluded in a case published Tuesday.

The finding came in a review of Meta’s handling of a post featuring a meme of Squidward, a character from the cartoon series “SpongeBob SquarePants,” entitled “Fun Facts about the Holocaust.” A speech bubble next to the character contained lies and distortions about the Holocaust, including false claims that 6 million Jews could not have been murdered and that chimneys of the crematoria at Auschwitz were built only after World War II.

Withstanding six complaints from users that generated four automated reviews and two human assessments, the post stayed up from September 2020 until last year when Meta’s Oversight Board decided it would examine the situation and the company subsequently announced the post violated its policy against hate speech. The post even survived two user complaints that came after Meta’s adoption in October 2020 of a new rule expanding on its hate speech policy to explicitly bar Holocaust denial.

As part of its review in the SpongeBob case, the Oversight Board commissioned a team of researchers to search for Holocaust denial on Meta’s platforms. It was not hard to find examples, including posts using the same Squidward meme to promote other types of antisemitic narratives. Users try to evade Meta’s detection and removal system, the researchers found. Vowels are replaced with symbols, for example, and cartoons and memes offer a way to implicitly deny the history of the Holocaust without directly saying it didn’t happen.

Asaf Elia-Shalev

JTA correspondent