That’s the transcript of a recent speech Sacha Baron Cohen gave at an Anti Defamation League event recently. In it, he complained about Facebook being “the greatest propaganda machine in history” and has now put me in the intensely uncomfortable position of wanting to defend Facebook.
I should note that Sacha Baron Cohen gave his speech as himself, and not as any one of his many many characters. Characters, by the way, which he has used to deceive people into interviews that they think are legitimate, but which are only meant to portray them as fools.
But Cohen is very very concerned about hate speech, and here are a few excerpts from his talk.
Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.
What do all these dangerous trends have in common? I’m just a comedian and an actor, not a scholar. But one thing is pretty clear to me. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.
The greatest propaganda machine in history.
Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others – they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged – stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth.
Cohen and others like him who have decided that they are arbiters of truth cannot fathom that opinions that run counter to what they believe must be, by default, hate speech and lies. He says, incredulously, that President Trump was considering designating Antifa (“anti-fascists who march against the far right”) as a terror organization, as if that’s an absurd idea, even though there is a huge amount of evidence to suggest that they are exactly that.
And that’s not the only thing Borat is horrified by.
And after years of YouTube videos calling climate change a “hoax”, the United States is on track, a year from now, to formally withdraw from the Paris accords. A sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threatens democracy and our planet – this cannot possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind.
Cohen is very very angry with Mark Zuckerberg, who, unlike Jack Dorsey with Twitter, has decided that Facebook will continue to allow political advertising. Why is he angry? Here’s what he says.
Facebook will run any “political” ad you want, even if it’s a lie. And they’ll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect. Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his “solution” to the “Jewish problem”. So here’s a good standard and practice: Facebook, start factchecking political ads before you run them, stop micro-targeted lies immediately, and when the ads are false, give back the money and don’t publish them.
Interesting that he brings up Hitler and advertising. According to this, the NYT itself actually helped Hitler in the early 1920s through the early 1940s, suggesting that Hitler’s anti-Semitism wasn’t anything to be concerned about, and publishing excerpts from Mein Kampf. Fast forward to modern day mainstream media, and consider that the NYT has also allowed Putin to write an op-ed for its pages. Hitler was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 1938, Stalin received that honor two times, Khruschev and Khomeini also had the title. Osama bin Laden was person of the year in 2001.
The point is – major media outlets have always brought prominence to terrible people. That’s nothing new. And major media outlets have always printed ads that aren’t honest. Magazines and tabloids and newspapers have been printing false information for YEARS AND YEARS, and it has always been up to the public to decide what to believe. Nothing has changed except for the platforms.
What Cohen is actually suggesting is the kind of censorship that ultimately would prevent the very kind of content HE CREATES.
This is the problem with trying to curtail free speech. This is the problem with trying to choose what is “hate speech” and what isn’t. This is the problem with giving power to specific individuals or specific governments to decide what people can and can’t say.
And don’t even get me started on Cohen’s idea of “fact-checking.” There is already far too much evidence that the fact-checkers themselves are ideological and too biased to do what they’re being tasked with. Snopes fact checks BABYLON BEE, for crying out loud. And we’re supposed to trust them to tell us what’s right, wrong, hateful, etc? Thank you but no.
Check out how Cohen wants to solve the whole Facebook freedom of speech thing:
This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. Sadly, there will always be racists, misogynists, antisemites and child abusers. But I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and pedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.
Second, Zuckerberg claimed that new limits on what’s posted on social media would be to “pull back on free expression”. This is utter nonsense. The first amendment says that “Congress shall make no law” abridging freedom of speech, however, this does not apply to private businesses like Facebook. We’re not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.
It’s EXACTLY about limiting free speech when you suggest that SOME PEOPLE shouldn’t have a platform to amplify their views. Cohen says, for example, that “bigots” shouldn’t be allowed platform access, and then also suggests it’s “bigoted” to pull out of the Paris accords. See the problem?
Saying that he wants Facebook to simply be “responsible on its platform” means what, exactly? Get rid of opinions he doesn’t like?
Oh – it turns out that’s exactly what he wants.
They could fix these problems if they wanted to. Twitter could deploy an algorithm to remove more white supremacist hate speech, but they reportedly haven’t because it would eject some very prominent politicians from their platform. Maybe that’s not a bad thing!
But wait. What exactly is considered “white supremacist hate speech” now? Is it the OK hand signal? Is it a certain haircut? Is it a confederate flag?
See the problem?
It’s time to finally call these companies what they really are – the largest publishers in history. And here’s an idea for them: abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines and TV news do every day. We have standards and practices in television and the movies; there are certain things we cannot say or do. In England, I was told that Ali G could not curse when he appeared before 9pm. Here in the US, the Motion Picture Association of America regulates and rates what we see. I’ve had scenes in my movies cut or reduced to abide by those standards. If there are standards and practices for what cinemas and television channels can show, then surely companies that publish material to billions of people should have to abide by basic standards and practices too.
And now we get to the crux of the matter. Facebook and other social media platforms should instantly declare themselves platforms and not publishers, and stop trying to police the content people post. They serve a purpose, at this point, much like a phone company. People use ATT and Verizon to communicate their views to one another – and some of those views are positively abhorrent. Do we want ATT and Verizon to start monitoring what is said on their phone lines and to deny access to people whose conversations they find to be “hate speech?”
The problem with Facebook and Twitter is that they want the benefits of being platforms AND publishers, without any of the consequences of each.
I’m certainly not the only one criticizing Cohen for his bizarre take. I love this article too. It calls out the absurdity of Cohen’s suggestion that the solution to Facebook’s problem is to hire more content moderators:
He’s assuming there’s some optimal level of content moderation that can be reached by just throwing more resources at it. There is not. He might as well be suggesting that the answer to all the bigots in the world is for Hollywood to hire more Sacha Baron Cohens until they expose them all. It’s a silly suggestion that makes no sense.
That same piece echoes what I said above as well:
But the internet is not about broadcast. It’s about communications. It’s about enabling anyone to communicate with anyone. Should we have “standards and practices” for how the telephone is used? Should the Postal Service read through all your mail and not send it on if you say bad words? That’s what Cohen is asking for. You don’t apply broadcast standards to communications systems. It just doesn’t work that way.