- The actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen gave an address to the Anti-Defamation League on Thursday about the spread of hate speech.
- Cohen said big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google facilitate the spread of hate speech and lies, making up “the greatest propaganda machine in history.”
- He said the internet treats “the rantings of a lunatic” as equal to statements made by a Nobel Prize winner, essentially killing the idea of shared, basic facts that everyone agrees on.
- Though the speech criticised big tech as a whole, Cohen went after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in particular.
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The “Borat” actor Sacha Baron Cohen launched a full-throated attack against tech companies and accused them of allowing hate speech to proliferate on their platforms in a 25-minute speech to the Anti-Defamation League on Thursday night.
Cohen said a “handful of internet companies” were facilitating “the greatest propaganda machine in history.”
Though Cohen mentioned Google, Twitter, and Facebook in his speech, his sharpest criticism was reserved for Mark Zuckerberg.
Cohen referred to a speech Zuckerberg gave at Georgetown University last month outlining where he thinks Facebook should draw the line on regulating free speech on its platform. Cohen dismantled Zuckerberg’s speech point by point.
“First, Zuckerberg tried to portray this whole issue as ‘choices around free expression.’ That is ludicrous,” Cohen said. “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.”
The comedian added that while the First Amendment prevents the government from limiting free expression, private companies have control over what they allow.
“If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and saying he wants to kill Jews, would the owner of the restaurant, a private business, be required to serve him an elegant eight-course meal? Of course not. The restaurant owner has every legal right – and indeed, I would argue, a moral obligation – to kick the Nazi out, and so do these internet companies,” he said.
Cohen also took issue with Zuckerberg’s interview with Kara Swisher last year in which he said that although he found posts denying the Holocaust “deeply offensive,” he wouldn’t remove them from Facebook because it could be someone’s sincerely held belief.
“I think there are things that different people get wrong,” Zuckerberg said. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
Cohen said: “We have, unfortunately, millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust – it is an historical fact. And denying it is not some random opinion. Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.”
Cohen also criticised Facebook’s decision to allow political ads on its platform even if they contain misinformation.
“Fortunately, Twitter finally banned them, and Google, today I read, is making changes too,” he said. “But if you pay them, Facebook will run any political ad you want, even if it’s a lie.”
Cohen suggested that social-media platforms should not immediately publish content and that they should give themselves more time to scrutinize posts.
“The shooter who massacred Muslims in New Zealand livestreamed his atrocity on Facebook, where it then spread across the internet and was viewed likely millions of times. It was a snuff film, brought to you by social media,” he said. “Why can’t we have more of a delay so that this trauma-inducing filth can be caught and stopped before it’s posted in the first place?”
Following the shooting in Christchurch in March, Facebook rejected the idea that delaying streamed videos would be helpful, saying it would only “further slow down” the response to violent content.
Cohen also floated the idea that the internet’s treatment of “the rantings of a lunatic” as equally credible to statements made by a Nobel Prize winner meant a reduction in “a shared sense of basic facts” that everyone agrees on.
“Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march,” he said.
Cohen acknowledged that tech companies had made some attempts to combat bigotry on their platforms but said the measures had been “mainly superficial.”
“When discussing the difficulty of removing content, Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg, asked, ‘Where do you draw the line?'” Cohen said. “Yes, drawing the line can be difficult. But here’s what he’s really saying: Removing more of these lies and conspiracies is just too expensive.”
He added: “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 and the NAACP, insist on facts, and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”
He also called for stricter regulation to allow the government to hold tech companies to account. But as the situation stands and the tech firms remain unregulated, tech CEOs can exert a kind of “ideological imperialism,” he said.
“It’s like we’re living in the Roman empire and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar – at least that would explain his haircut,” he said. (Zuckerberg’s haircut has recently been the subject of some speculation.)