Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has launched a blistering attack on social media companies over their failure to tackle the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation online.
In a speech to the Anti-Defamation League in New York, the Borat and Ali G creator said companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are the “greatest propaganda machine in history.”
He slammed Facebook for using free speech as an excuse for its failure to take responsibility for lies, misinformation and abusive messages posted to the platform.
He said the company’s refusal to fact-check political ads would have allowed Hitler to deliver Nazi propaganda to billions of people around the world, if the platform existed during his rise to power.
“If you pay them, Facebook will run any 'political' ad you want – even if it's a lie,” he said. “And they'll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect.”
“Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his 'solution' to the 'Jewish problem.'
“So here's a good standard and practice. Facebook, start fact-checking political ads, stop before you run them, and stop micro-targeting lies immediately. If they prove to be lies, give back the money and don't publish them.”
"Outrage and fear"
He noted that the algorithms Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter rely on deliberately amplify content that keeps users engaged, “stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear.”
He said social media has become a “sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threatens democracy and our planet.”
“Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts,” he said.
“Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason – the era of evidential argument – is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed.
“Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march.
“Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.
“What do all these dangerous trends have in common? 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.”
He said the current status quo “cannot possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind” and called for a “fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.”
He welcomed Twitter’s recent decision to ban political ads and noted that “Google is making changes too” and pointed out that international tech giants are the richest companies in the world with resources to “fix these problems if they wanted to.”
“Allow me to leave you with a suggestion for a different aim for society,” he said.
“The ultimate aim of society should be to make sure that people are not targeted, not harassed and not murdered because of who they are, where they come from, who they love or how they pray.
“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.”