Watch Sacha Baron Cohen Give a Master Class in Everything That’s Wrong With Mark Zuckerberg & Facebook
The best thing you'll see today, hands down.
Sacha Baron Cohen was honored at the Anti-Defamation League’s Never Is Now summit on anti-Semitism and hate Thursday, where he received the ADL’s International Leadership Award. The speech he gave when accepting the award is probably the best thing you’ll read or watch today.
The actor/comedian/activist started off (after making a joke about the White House’s #1 Racist Boy Stephen Miller) by acknowledging that it’s strange for many to see him out of character. This is, he says, “the first-ever time that I’ve stood up and given a speech as my least popular character, Sacha Baron Cohen.”
Some may also find it strange to see him on that stage because, as he says, “at times, some critics have said my comedy risks reinforcing old stereotypes.”
And it’s true–again, as he himself will be the first to point out–much of his comedy is completely juvenile and superficially apolitical. On the surface, many of his characters do appear to be playing to stereotypes rather than challenging them. But that’s probably because what he’s really challenging is his audience.
“As a comedian,” he says, “I’ve tried to use my characters to get people to let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe, including their own prejudice.”
So yes, much of his comedy might seem childish and apolitical,
But when Borat was able to get an entire bar in Arizona to sing “Throw the Jew down the well,” it did reveal people’s indifference to anti-Semitism. When—as Bruno, the gay fashion reporter from Austria—I started kissing a man in a cage fight in Arkansas, nearly starting a riot, it showed the violent potential of homophobia. And when—disguised as an ultra-woke developer—I proposed building a mosque in one rural community, prompting a resident to proudly admit, “I am racist, against Muslims”—it showed the acceptance of Islamophobia.
Baron Cohen made his first appearance as Borat in 1996. Da Ali G Show premiered in the UK in 1999 and in the US in 2003. Meaning he hit big right around the time of the social media boom, putting him in a unique position to monitor the trajectory of that entire industry.
In talking about the rise of conspiracy theories, demagoguery, and hate speech and acts, here’s what he has to say about the influence of social media:
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.
Baron Cohen’s entire speech is about 25 minutes long, which I know is an eternity in terms of internet videos. But I cannot overstate how powerful the speech is and just how much you should watch it (which you can do at the top of this page) or read it (here).
The speech is a master class in dismantling the destruction caused by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
“On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate,” he says. And these sites end up letting dangerous voices–those of racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, anti-semitic conspiracy theorists–gain legitimacy simply by allowing them to amplify each other to the point where they seem like a reasonable side to an argument.
Mark Zuckerberg has said he finds Holocaust deniers to be “deeply offensive” but he won’t take their posts down from Facebook “because I think there are things that different people get wrong.” A head of Google told Baron Cohen that Holocaust denial sites just show “both sides” of the issue.
“This is madness,” says Baron Cohen.
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.
Zuckerberg has defended his refusal to act on these problems plaguing his site because, he says, “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.”
But Baron Cohen calls now for us “to finally call these companies what they really are—the largest publishers in history.” They should be held to the same standards as any media company–or, really, just any company of any kind.
In every other industry, a company can be held liable when their product is defective. When engines explode or seatbelts malfunction, car companies recall tens of thousands of vehicles, at a cost of billions of dollars. It only seems fair to say to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter: your product is defective, you are obliged to fix it, no matter how much it costs and no matter how many moderators you need to employ.
And, as Baron Cohen points out, Zuckerberg, like Jack Dorsey and the owners of the other big “Silicon Six” companies that dominate the way we communicate and share information, could fix these problems. “These are the richest companies in the world, and they have the best engineers in the world,” he says. “They could fix these problems if they wanted to. ”
But it’s clear they don’t want to. Moreover, they benefit from the problems.
“The truth is,” he says, “these companies won’t fundamentally change because their entire business model relies on generating more engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage.”
Of course, we as consumers have a choice to stop using the platforms. But realistically, these sites have fundamentally changed the way we communicate and there isn’t a great non-evil alternative to the Silicon Six.
Baron Cohen’s call for lawmakers to take a stand doesn’t seem too drastic:
Fortunately, Internet companies can now be held responsible for pedophiles who use their sites to target children. I say, let’s also hold these companies responsible for those who use their sites to advocate for the mass murder of children because of their race or religion. And maybe fines are not enough. Maybe it’s time to tell Mark Zuckerberg and the CEOs of these companies: you already allowed one foreign power to interfere in our elections, you already facilitated one genocide in Myanmar, do it again and you go to jail.
You can read the full speech here or watch it above.
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