In a speech last night in the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen attacked Facebook and other social media platforms to facilitate the spread of hate speech and misinformation.
The speech was conspicuous for his sincerity – Baron Cohen appeared more as himself than as one of his satirical roles – and his tingling tone.
He described Facebook as "the biggest propaganda machine in history " and argued that the company, which does not check political advertising for veracity, would have allowed Hitler to propagandize on its platform.
Here is the complete record of his prepared remarks:
Thank you, ADL, for this recognition and your work in the fight against racism, hate and bigotry. And to be clear, when I say "racism, hatred and bigotry", I'm not referring to the names of Stephen Miller's Labradoodles.
Now I realize that some of you might be thinking about what the hell a comedian does at a conference like this! I am sure. I have spent most of the last two decades with character. In fact, this is the first time I have stood up and given a speech as my least popular character, Sacha Baron Cohen. And I have to admit, it's scary.
I realize that my presence here can be unexpected for some other reason as well. Some critics said that my comedy carries the risk of reinforcing old stereotypes.
In truth, all my life I have been passionately interested in challenging bigotry and intolerance. As a teenager in the UK, I marched against the fascist National Front and to abolish apartheid. As a student, I traveled through America and wrote my dissertation on the civil rights movement with the help of the archives of the ADL. And as a comedian, I tried to use my characters to make people lose their vigilance and reveal what they actually believe in, including their own prejudices.
Well, I will not say that I have done everything for a higher purpose. Yes, part of my comedy, probably half of my comedy, was absolutely youthful and the other half completely childish. I admit I had nothing particularly revealing about me ̵
But when Borat in Arizona was able to get a whole bar to sing, "Throw the Jew into the well," people's indifference to anti-Semitism was revealed. When, when Bruno, the gay fashion reporter from Austria, started kissing a man in a cage fight in Arkansas and nearly caused a riot, I saw the violent potential of homophobia. And when, disguised as an "Ultra-Woke" developer, I proposed to build a mosque in a rural community and proudly admit a resident, "I am racist against Muslims," this showed the acceptance of Islamophobia.
That's why I appreciate the opportunity to be here with you. Today, demagogues around the world are appealing to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories that were once marginalized become mainstream. It is as if the age of reason – the era of reasoning – comes to an end and the knowledge is now delegitimized and the scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the rise. Hate crimes are on the rise, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.
What do all these dangerous tendencies have in common? I'm just a comedian and an actor, not a scholar. But one thing is pretty clear to me. All this hatred and violence is supported by a handful of Internet companies, who are the biggest propaganda machine in history.
The largest propaganda machine in history.
Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others reach billions of people. The algorithms that need these platforms purposefully reinforce the kinds of content that occupy the users – stories that appeal to our lower instincts and trigger outrage and anxiety. That's why YouTube recommended billionaire videos by conspirator Alex Jones . That's why fake news outperforms real news because studies show that lies spread faster than the truth. No wonder the biggest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history – the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. A headline reads: "Just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook."
Everything can seem equally legitimate on the Internet. Breitbart is similar to the BBC. The fictional records of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the insults of a madman seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We seem to have lost a common sense of the basic facts on which democracy depends.
As a wannabe gang, Ali G asked astronaut Buzz Aldrin, "How is walking on the Sun?" Joke worked because we, the audience, shared the same facts. If you think the moon landing was a joke, the joke was not funny.
When Borat got this bar in Arizona to agree that "Jews control everyone's money and never return it," the joke worked because the audience shared the fact that depicting Jews as stingy is a conspiracy theory that matters comes from the Middle Ages.
But when conspiracies emerge thanks to social media, it's easier for hate groups to recruit, and for foreign intelligence agencies to interfere in our elections, and for a country like Myanmar, it's easier to commit genocide on the Rohingya.
It's actually quite shocking how easy it is to turn conspiracy thinking into violence. In my last show Who is America? Did I find a well-educated, normal man who did a good job, but repeated many of the conspiracy theories in social media that President Trump has spread more than 1,700 times on Twitter to his 67 million followers. The president even tweeted that he was considering naming Antifa antifascists who march against the extreme right as a terrorist organization.
Disguised as Israeli anti-terrorism expert, Colonel Erran Morad, I explained to my interviewee: At the women's march in San Francisco, Antifa was planning to put hormones in the nappies of babies in order to "transgender" them. And he believed it.
I told him to provide three innocent people with small devices on the march and explained that he would trigger an explosion at the push of a button that would kill them all. Of course, they were not really explosives, but he thought they were. I wanted to see – would he actually do it?
The answer was yes. He pushed the button and thought he had actually killed three people. Voltaire was right: "Those who make you believe in absurdities can commit atrocities." In social media, authorities can exercise absurdities on billions of people.
In their defense, these social media companies have taken some steps to reduce hatred and conspiracies on their platforms, but these steps were largely superficial.
I speak today because I believe that our pluralistic democracies are on an abyss and that the next 12 months and the role of social media could be determining. British voters will go to the polls while online conspirators represent the despicable theory of the "great substitute" for white Christians being purposely replaced by Muslim immigrants. The Americans will vote for the president, while trolls and bots perpetuate the disgusting lie of a "Hispanic invasion." And after years of YouTube videos calling climate change "a joke," the US is well on its way to withdraw from the Paris agreements in a year from now. A flood of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threaten democracy and our planet – that's what the creators of the Internet can not possibly have in mind.
I think it's time for a fundamental rethinking of social media and how they spread and lie about hatred and plots. However, over the past month, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook delivered an important speech that did not surprisingly warn of new laws and regulations for companies like his. Well, some of those arguments are simply absurd. Let's count the ways.
At first, Zuckerberg tried to portray this whole problem as "choices … for free expression". That's ridiculous. It is not about limiting the freedom of speech of a person. This is about providing people, including some of the most despicable people in the world, the largest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not a freedom of movement. Unfortunately, there will always be racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and child molesters. But I think we can all agree that we should not give bigots and pedophiles a free platform to expand their views and target their victims.
Secondly, Zuckerberg claimed that new limits to what is posted on social media are "retiring to free speech." That's utter nonsense. The first amendment says that "Congress should not legislate", which restricts freedom of expression, but this does not apply to private companies like Facebook. We do not urge these companies to define the limits of freedom of expression in society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.
If a neo-Nazi enters a restaurant and threatens other customers and says he wants to kill Jews, would the owner of the restaurant have to serve him an elegant 8-course menu? Of course not! The restaurant owner has all legal and moral rights to kick out the Nazis, and these internet companies as well.
Third, Zuckerberg seemed to equate the regulation of companies like him with the actions of the "most repressive societies". Incredible. This from one of the six people who decide what information sees so much of the world. Zuckerberg on Facebook, Sundar Pichai on Google, parent company Alphabet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin's ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki on YouTube, and Jack Dorsey on Twitter.
The Silicon Six – All Billionaires, All Americans who are more interested in raising their stock price than in protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism – six unelected Silicon Valley people who impose their vision on the rest of the world, who can not be held accountable to any government and act as if they were beyond the reach of the law. It's as if we live in the Roman Empire and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.
Here's an idea. Instead of letting Silicon Six decide on the fate of the world, our popular representatives of every democracy in the world should at least have something to say.
Fourth, Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a "diversity of people" ideas, "and last year he gave us an example. He said that he found contributions that "denied" the Holocaust profoundly, but he did not think Facebook should turn them off, "because I think there are things that make different people wrong." At this moment, there are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google leads you to the most disgusting Holocaust denier websites with a simple click. One of Google's leaders once told me incredibly that these sites only show "both sides" of the problem. This is madness.
To quote Edward R Murrow, one can not accept that in every story there are two equal and logical sides to an argument. We have millions of evidence for the Holocaust – it's a historical fact. And denying it is not an accidental opinion. Those who deny the Holocaust want to encourage others.
Yet, Zuckerberg says that "people should decide what is credible, not technology companies." But at a time when two-thirds of Millennials say they have not even heard of Auschwitz, how do they know what is "credible"? How should you know that the lie is a lie?
There is something like objective truth. Facts exist. And if these Internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL, insist on facts, and remove those lies and plots from their platforms.
Zuckerberg asked, "Where do you draw the line?" Yes, drawing the line can be difficult. But here's what he really says: removing more of these lies and conspiracies is just too expensive.
These are the richest companies in the world and they have the best engineers in the world. You could fix these issues if you wanted. Twitter could use an algorithm to remove more hate speech from the white supremacists, but they're supposed to have none, because that would throw some very prominent politicians off their platform. Maybe that's not a bad thing! The truth is that these companies will not change fundamentally, since their entire business model is based on generating more engagement and generating nothing more than lies, fear and outrage.
It's time to finally name these companies the way they really are – the biggest publishers in history. And here's an idea for them: Follow the basic standards and practices that newspapers, magazines, and television news use daily. We have standards and practices on television and in the cinema; There are certain things that we can not say or do. In England, I was told that Ali G could not curse if he showed up before 9pm. Here in the US, the Motion Picture Association of America regulates and rates what we see. I've cut or reduced scenes in my films to meet those standards. If there are standards and practices for what cinemas and TV stations can show, then companies that publish material for billions of people should adhere to basic standards and practices.
Take the topic of political advertising. Fortunately, Twitter has finally blocked it and Google is also making changes. However, if you pay them, Facebook will serve any desired "political" ad, even if it's a lie. And they even help you match these lies to users for maximum impact. If Facebook had existed in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler, following this twisted logic, to turn 30-second ads into his "solution" to the "Jewish problem". Here's a good standard and good practice: Facebook, review political ads before you turn them on, stop micro-targeted lies immediately, and return the money if the ads are wrong and do not publish them.
Here is another benefit exercise: drive slower. Each individual contribution does not have to be published immediately. Oscar Wilde once said, "We live in a time when unnecessary things are our only necessity." But is it really a necessity to put every thought or video online right away, even if it's racist, criminal or murderous? Of course not!
The gunman, who massacred Muslims in New Zealand, transmitted his atrocities live on Facebook, where they then spread via the Internet and were probably viewed millions of times. It was a snuff movie that you received via social media. Why can not we have more delays to catch and stop this traumatic filth before it's even published?
Finally, Zuckerberg said that social media companies should "live up to their responsibilities," but he's completely silent on what should happen if they do not. By now it's pretty clear that you can not trust them to self-regulate. As with the Industrial Revolution, it is time for regulations and laws to curb the greed of these high-tech robber barons.
In any other industry, a company can be held responsible if its product is defective. When engines explode or seatbelts fail, car companies call tens of thousands of vehicles costing billions of dollars. It only seems fair to say to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter: your product is broken, you need to fix it, no matter how much it costs and how many moderators you need to deal with.
In any other industry, you can be sued for the damage you cause. Publishers can be sued for defamation, people can be sued for defamation. I have been sued many times! I'm being sued by someone whose name I'm not mentioning, because he may sue me again! However, social media companies are largely protected from liability for the content their users publish, no matter how indecent they are, by preparing to do so under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Absurd!
Fortunately, Internet companies can now be held responsible for pedophiles who use their websites to target children. I say, we also blame these companies for those who use their race or religion on their websites for the mass murder of children. And maybe fines are not enough. Perhaps it is time to tell Mark Zuckerberg and the directors of these companies: they have already allowed a foreign power to interfere in our elections, you have already committed a genocide in Myanmar, do it again and you must go to jail ,
It all depends on what kind of world we want. In his speech, Zuckerberg said that one of his main goals was "to maintain as broad a definition of freedom of expression as possible". However, our freedoms are not only an end in themselves but also a means for a different purpose – as you say here in the US, the right to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Today, however, these rights are threatened by hatred, conspiracies and lies.
Let me make a suggestion for another corporate objective. The ultimate goal of society should be to ensure that people are not targeted, not molested and not murdered because they are, where they come from, who they love or how they pray.
If we make this our goal – If we put truth about lies, tolerance of prejudice, empathy about indifference and experts about ignorance – then maybe we can stop the biggest propaganda machine in history, save democracy, we can still have a place for freedom of expression and freedom of expression and especially my jokes will still work.
Thank you all.