Sacha Baron Cohen: It’s time to control ‘the best propaganda device in history’– social networks – Jewish Telegraphic Agency
New York City (JTA)– The following is Sacha Baron Cohen’s keynote address at Anti-Defamation League’s 2019 Never ever Is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate, held in New York City on Nov. 21, 2019. It is reprinted here with permission from the ADL.
Thank you, [ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt], for your very kind words. Thank you, ADL, for this acknowledgment and your work in combating racism, hate and bigotry. And to be clear, when I say “racism, hate and bigotry” I’m not referring to the names of Stephen Miller’s Labradoodles.
Now, I understand that a few of you might be believing, what the hell is a comedian doing speaking at a conference like this! I certainly am. I’ve invested the majority of the previous twenty years in character. This is the very first time that I have actually ever stood up and provided a speech as my least popular character, Sacha Baron Cohen. And I have to admit, it is frightening.
I realize that my presence here might likewise be unanticipated for another reason. At times, some critics have actually said my funny risks enhancing old stereotypes.
The reality is, I have actually been enthusiastic about challenging bigotry and intolerance throughout my life. As a teen in the UK, I marched against the fascist National Front and to abolish Apartheid. As an undergraduate, I circumnavigated America and wrote my thesis about the civil liberties motion, with the help of the archives of the ADL. And as a comic, I have actually tried to utilize my characters to get people to let down their guard and reveal what they really think, including their own bias.
Now, I’m not going to claim that whatever I’ve done has been for a greater purpose. Yes, some of my funny, ok most likely half my funny, has been absolutely juvenile and the other half completely puerile. I confess, there was nothing especially informing about me– as Borat from Kazakhstan, the first phony news reporter– going through a conference of home mortgage brokers when I was completely naked.
But when Borat had the ability to get a whole bar in Arizona to sing “Toss the Jew down the well,” it did expose individuals’s indifference to anti-Semitism. When– as Bruno, the gay style reporter from Austria– I began kissing a male in a cage fight in Arkansas, nearly starting a riot, it revealed the violent potential of homophobia. And when– disguised as an ultra-woke developer– I proposed building a mosque in one rural community, prompting a local to proudly admit, “I am racist, against Muslims”– it showed the approval of Islamophobia.
That’s why I value the opportunity to be here with you. Today all over the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories when restricted to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason– the period of evidential argument– is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and clinical agreement is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared realities, remains in retreat, and autocracy, which depends upon shared lies, is on the march. Dislike criminal activities are surging, as are homicidal attacks on spiritual and ethnic minorities.
What do all these unsafe patterns share? I’m simply a comedian and a star, not a scholar. However one thing is quite clear to me. All this hate and violence is being helped with by a handful of web business that amount to the biggest propaganda machine in history.
The best propaganda device in history.
Think of it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others– they reach billions of individuals. The algorithms these platforms depend on intentionally amplify the kind of material that keeps users engaged– stories that interest our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and worry. It’s why YouTube advised videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why phony news exceeds genuine news, due to the fact that research studies show that lies spread quicker than truth. And it’s no surprise that the best propaganda device in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history– the lie that Jews are somehow hazardous. As one heading put it, “Just Believe What Goebbels Might Have Made With Facebook.”
On the internet, whatever can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart looks like the BBC. The fictitious Procedures of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as reliable as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost, it appears, a shared sense of the standard realities upon which democracy depends.
When I, as the wanna-be-gangsta Ali G, asked the astronaut Buzz Aldrin “what woz it like to walk on de sun?” the joke worked, since we, the audience, shared the exact same truths. If you think the moon landing was a scam, the joke was not funny.
When Borat got that bar in Arizona to agree that “Jews manage everybody’s cash and never provide it back,” the joke worked because the audience shared the truth that the depiction of Jews as miserly is a conspiracy theory coming from the Middle Ages.
But when, thanks to social networks, conspiracies take hold, it’s much easier for hate groups to hire, much easier for foreign intelligence agencies to interfere in our elections, and easier for a nation like Myanmar to dedicate genocide against the Rohingya.
It’s actually quite stunning how easy it is to turn conspiracy thinking into violence. In my last show “Who is America?,” I found an informed, normal man who had actually held down a good task, however who, on social media, duplicated a lot of the conspiracy theories that President Trump, utilizing Twitter, has spread more than 1,700 times to his 67 million followers. The President even tweeted that he was considering designating Antifa– anti-fascists who march against the far best– as a terror company.
So, camouflaged as an Israel anti-terrorism expert, Colonel Erran Morad, I informed my interviewee that, at the Women’s March in San Francisco, Antifa were outlining to put hormones into infants’ diapers in order to “make them transgender.” And he thought it.
I advised him to plant little devices on 3 innocent individuals at the march and described that when he pushed a button, he ‘d set off an explosion that would kill them all. They weren’t genuine dynamites, of course, but he believed they were. I wished to see– would he really do it?
The answer was yes. He pushed the button and believed he had really eliminated three people. Voltaire was right, “those who can make you think absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” And social networks lets authoritarians press absurdities to billions of people.
In their defense, these social media companies have taken some steps to reduce hate and conspiracies on their platforms, however these actions have been primarily superficial.
I’m speaking up today due to the fact that I believe that our pluralistic democracies are on a precipice and that the next twelve months, and the role of social media, might be determinant. British voters will go to the polls while online conspiracists promote the despicable theory of “great replacement” that white Christians are being intentionally changed by Muslim immigrants. Americans will elect president while trolls and bots perpetuate the disgusting lie of a “Hispanic intrusion.” And after years of YouTube videos calling environment modification a “scam,” the United States is on track, a year from now, to officially withdraw from the Paris Accords. A sewage system of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threatens democracy and our planet– this can not possibly be what the developers of the internet had in mind.
I think it’s time for a basic rethink of social networks and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies. Last month, nevertheless, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook provided a significant speech that, not remarkably, cautioned against new laws and guidelines on companies like his. Well, some of these arguments are merely ridiculous. Let’s count the methods.
Initially, Zuckerberg attempted to represent this entire problem as “choices … around free expression.” That is ridiculous. This is not about restricting anybody’s totally free speech. This has to do with offering individuals, including a few of the most guilty people on earth, the most significant platform in history to reach a 3rd of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. Unfortunately, there will constantly be racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and child abusers. However I believe we could all agree that we must not be providing bigots and pedophiles a totally free platform to enhance their views and target their victims.
Second, Zuckerberg declared that brand-new limits on what’s published on social networks would be to “pull back on complimentary 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 business to identify the borders of complimentary speech across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.
If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a dining establishment and begins threatening other consumers and stating he desires eliminate Jews, would the owner of the dining establishment be needed to serve him a classy eight-course meal? Naturally not! The restaurant owner has every legal right and a moral commitment to kick the Nazi out, and so do these internet business.
Third, Zuckerberg seemed to relate guideline of companies like his to the actions of “the most repressive societies.” Extraordinary. This, from one of the six individuals who decide what details a lot of the world sees. Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its moms and dad 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 safeguarding democracy. This is ideological imperialism– 6 unelected people in Silicon Valley enforcing their vision on the remainder of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law. It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. A minimum of that would explain his hairstyle.
Here’s an idea. Rather of letting the Silicon Six decide the fate of the world, let our chosen agents, voted for by the individuals, of every democracy worldwide, have at least some state.
4th, Zuckerberg mentions welcoming a “diversity of concepts,” and last year he offered us an example. He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust “deeply offending,” but he didn’t think Facebook needs to take them down “due to the fact that I think there are things that different individuals get incorrect.” At this very minute, there are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google still takes you to the most repulsive Holocaust denial websites with a simple click. One of the heads of Google as soon as told me, incredibly, that these websites just reveal “both sides” of the problem. This is insanity.
To price quote Edward R. Murrow, one “can decline that there are, on every story, two equivalent and rational sides to an argument.” We have millions of pieces of proof for the Holocaust– it is a historic fact. And rejecting it is not some random viewpoint. Those who deny the Holocaust objective to motivate another one.
Still, Zuckerberg states that “people must choose what is reputable, not tech companies.” At a time when two-thirds of millennials say they have not even heard of Auschwitz, how are they expected to know what’s “reputable?” How are they expected to know that the lie is a lie?
There is such a thing as objective fact. Truths do exist. And if these internet companies actually desire to make a distinction, they ought to hire enough screens to in fact keep an eye on, work closely with groups like the ADL, firmly insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.
Fifth, when going over the problem of removing material, Zuckerberg asked “where do you draw the line?” Yes, fixing a limit can be tough. Here’s what he’s actually saying: eliminating more of these lies and conspiracies is just too costly.
These are the wealthiest business in the world, and they have the best engineers in the world. They could fix these problems if they wished to. Twitter could release an algorithm to get rid of more white supremacist hate speech, but they supposedly haven’t because it would eject some extremely prominent politicians from their platform. Maybe that’s not a bad thing! The reality is, these business won’t essentially alter since their entire organisation design relies on producing more engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, worry and outrage.
It’s time to lastly call these companies what they really are– the largest publishers in history. And here’s an idea for them: comply with fundamental standards and practices much like papers, publications and TELEVISION news do every day. We have standards and practices in tv and the movies; there are specific things we can not say or do. In England, I was told that Ali G could not curse when he appeared prior to 9:00 p.m. Here in the U.S., the Movie Association of America regulates and rates what we see. I’ve had scenes in my movies cut or decreased to abide by those requirements. If there are requirements and practices for what cinemas and tv channels can reveal, then certainly business that publish product to billions of people must have to comply with standard standards and practices too.
Take the issue of political ads. Twitter lastly prohibited them, and Google is making changes, too. However if you pay them, Facebook will run any “political” advertisement you want, even if it’s a lie. And they’ll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for optimal effect. Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have permitted Hitler to publish 30-second advertisements on his “service” to the “Jewish issue.” So here’s a great standard and practice: Facebook, begin fact-checking political ads prior to you run them, stop micro-targeted lies right away, and when the advertisements are false, return the cash and do not publish them.
Here’s another great practice: slow down. Each and every single post does not need to be released right away. Oscar Wilde as soon as stated that “we live in an age when unnecessary things are our only needs.” But is having every thought or video published immediately online, even if it is racist or criminal or homicidal, actually a requirement? Of course not!
The shooter who massacred Muslims in New Zealand live streamed his atrocity on Facebook where it then spread across the web and was seen most likely countless times. It was a snuff movie, brought to you by social networks. Why can’t we have more of a delay so this trauma-inducing dirt can be caught and stopped before it’s posted in the very first place?
Zuckerberg stated that social media business need to “live up to their obligations,” but he’s totally silent about what ought to occur when they do not. By now it’s pretty clear, they can not be depended regulate themselves. Similar to the Industrial Transformation, it’s time for policy and legislation to curb the greed of these state-of-the-art burglar barons.
In every other industry, a business can be held responsible when their product is malfunctioning. When engines take off or seat belts breakdown, cars and truck companies recall tens of countless automobiles, at a cost of billions of dollars. It only appears fair to say to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter: your item is malfunctioning, you are obliged to fix it, no matter just how much it costs and no matter the number of mediators you require to employ.
In every other industry, you can be sued for the damage you trigger. Publishers can be demanded libel, individuals can be demanded character assassination. I have actually been sued sometimes! I’m being taken legal action against today by somebody whose name I will not point out because he may sue me once again! Social media companies are mostly secured from liability for the content their users post– no matter how indecent it is– by Section 230 of, get prepared for it, the Communications Decency Act. Absurd!
Thankfully, Web business can now be held responsible for pedophiles who utilize their websites to target children. I say, let’s also hold these companies responsible for those who utilize their websites to advocate for the mass murder of children since of their race or religious beliefs. And possibly fines are inadequate. Maybe it’s time to tell Mark Zuckerberg and the CEOs of these business: you already enabled one foreign power to interfere in our elections, you already helped with one genocide in Myanmar, do it again and you go to prison.
In the end, it all comes down to what kind of world we want. In his speech, Zuckerberg stated that a person of his primary goals is to “promote as large a definition of liberty of expression as possible.” Yet our freedoms are not just an end in themselves, they’re also the methods to another end– as you say here in the U.S., the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Today these rights are threatened by hate, conspiracies and lies.
Permit me to leave you with an idea for a various objective for society. The supreme objective of society ought to be to make sure that individuals are not targeted, not pestered and not murdered because of who they are, where they come from, who they love or how they pray
If we make that our objective– if we focus on truth over lies, tolerance over bias, empathy over indifference and professionals over know nothings– then perhaps, just possibly, we can stop the best propaganda maker in history, we can save democracy, we can still belong free of charge speech and free expression, and, most importantly, my jokes will still work.
Thank you all very much.
is an English star, comic, screenwriter, director, and movie producer known for producing and portraying imaginary satirical characters, including Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev, Brüno Gehard and Admiral General Aladeen.The views and
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