Sacha Baron Cohen leveled some of the most damning criticisms ever made against social media giants Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google last night during a Keynote Address at the Anti-Defamation League’s 2019 Never is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate. The actor/comedian was honored with the ADL’s International Leadership Award, and he used his speech to make a strong case against social media, and Facebook in particular, as willingingly facilitating the spread of anti-Semitism, racism, lies, and conspiracy theories.
“Think about it,” Cohen said. “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. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, ‘Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.’”
“On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate,” he continued. “Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.”
Cohen argued that Facebook, specifically Mark Zuckerberg, held a tremendous amount of the responsibility for the dilution of objective truth, and skewered statements Zuckerberg made in a recent speech at Georgetown University.
“Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a ‘diversity of ideas,’ and last year he gave us an example,” Cohen said. “He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust “deeply offensive,” but he didn’t think Facebook should take them down ‘because I think there are things that different people get wrong’… To quote Edward R. Murrow, one ‘cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument.’ We have 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 points out that all of the major social media brands are controlled by just six people, all of whom are American billionaires, and that the reach of their platforms covers a third of the planet. Each platform consistently refuses to take serious, meaningful action against hate speech and disinformation, Cohen argues, because they “care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy.”
The comedian ultimately asserted that social media companies are publishers, and should be held to the same accountability and standards as publishers. He even suggested that Zuckerberg could be sent to prison for the role Facebook played in influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. It’s kind of hard to disagree with him on that point.
Cohen’s speech is powerful, insightful, and at times pretty funny. You can watch the speech below or read it in its entirety on the ADL’s official website.