Sacha Baron Cohen has courted controversy his entire career, portraying characters, from Da Ali G and Borat to Bruno, that have pissed off all groups from left to right. He’s an equal-opportunity offender, but his alter-egos have long served to expose the hypocrisies of society by mocking humanity’s worst tendencies. His 2018 Showtime series “Who Is America?” tackles humankind’s dark side head-on by bait-and-switching real-life figures to catch them in their blind spots. In the show, he got Dick Cheney to sign a waterboarding kit, former chief justice Roy Moore to take a pedophile lie-detector test, and “The Bachelor” star Corinne Olympios to endorse the training of child soldiers on camera.
But at the Anti-Defamation League’s Never Is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate, Baron Cohen took off his comedy hat when honored with the ADL’s International Leadership Award. He used the platform to deliver a keynote outlining how social media and the information it disseminates have fueled the bigotry dominating the current political moment in the U.S.
“Yes, some of my comedy, OK probably half my comedy, has been absolutely juvenile and the other half completely puerile,” he said. “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.
“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,” Baron Cohen said, adding that “it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.”
In his speech, Baron Cohen pointed to recent remarks from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg warning of the dangers of regulating free expression on the internet. (“As long as our governments respect people’s right to express themselves, as long as our platforms live up to their responsibilities to support expression and prevent harm, and as long as we all commit to being open and making space for more perspectives, I think we’ll make progress,” Zuckerberg said in his Georgetown University address in October.)
“Some of these arguments are simply absurd,” Baron Cohen said. “There will always be racists, misogynists, anti-Semites 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.
“Zuckerberg seemed to equate regulation of companies like his to the actions of ‘the most repressive societies.’ Incredible. This, from one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees. Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its parent company Alphabet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin’s ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Jack Dorsey at Twitter. The Silicon Six — all billionaires, all Americans — who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy,” Baron Cohen said, likening their reign on internet information “ideological imperialism.”
Baron Cohen’s thought? “Instead of letting the Silicon Six decide the fate of the world, let our elected representatives, voted for by the people, of every democracy in the world, have at least some say.”
The comedian also urged that these “Silicon Six” abide by the same practices that journalism does, or is supposed to, at least. “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,” he said.
He also said something that likely any publishing outlet can relate to: “Slow down. Every single post doesn’t need to be published immediately… Is having every thought or video posted instantly online, even if it is racist or criminal or murderous, really a necessity? Of course not!”
Finally, Baron Cohen concluded his speech by telling the room, “If we make that our aim — if we prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference and experts over ignoramuses — then maybe, just maybe, we can stop the greatest propaganda machine in history, we can save democracy, we can still have a place for free speech and free expression, and, most importantly, my jokes will still work.”
How practicable that advice is remains an open question, but in diagnosing what Baron Cohen perceives to be an information epidemic, he’s now a high-profile public voice in an ongoing debate that, as we head into the 2020 election, won’t be going away anytime soon.
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