On Thursday, comedian and actor Sacha Baron Cohen gave the keynote address at the Anti-Defamation League’s 2019 Never Is Now Summit, at which he was receiving the organization’s International Leadership Award. Cohen focused his speech on social media and the handful of tech giants that control the world’s largest platforms, calling them “the greatest propaganda machine in history.”
Cohen outlined the rise of fascistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around the world and their breeding grounds on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. “On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. 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 said that while Facebook and Twitter and others had made small attempts to deal with these content issues, much more was needed. Specifically, he argued that Mark Zuckerberg’s defense of Facebook’s semi-hands-off approach to political ads and hate groups is disingenuous, saying, “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.” Cohen also argued that no one is asking Facebook to police free speech around the world, but, since it is a privately owned company, he doesn’t see why Facebook won’t stop lies from being spread.
Cohen noted that the real problem is that there are six people, whom he calls the “Silicon Six” (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; Google’s Sundar Pichai, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin; Susan Wojcicki at YouTube; and Jack Dorsey at Twitter), who control what the majority of the globe sees online.
This is ideological imperialism—six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest 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. At least that would explain his haircut.
Cohen brings up the most odious aspects of policies such as those of Facebook when it comes to political ads.
But if you pay them, Facebook will run any “political” ad you want, even if it’s a lie. 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 before you run them, stop micro-targeted lies immediately, and when the ads are false, give back the money and don’t publish them.
Cohen calls for a set of standards and practices to be applied to the internet, something that seems very problematic in practice, but he also points out that moderation is well within the scope of companies like Facebook, which have nothing if not piles of cash and talent to work on the problem, because “there is such thing as objective truth. Facts do exist.”
Cohen’s speech is an important one, but it touches on a very delicate subject that I imagine will elicit a lot of discussion. There will be lots of answers that many of us will like or dislike to various degrees. I don’t have the answers here, but something must change. Freedom of speech is a real thing and an important one. I believe the political ad situation on Facebook is a no-brainer at this point. If the company cannot budget in enough moderators and fact-checkers to clean up outrageous political ad lies, it isn’t a worthwhile business. Personally, I believe Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s call to break up the tech companies to be an interesting solution to a lot of what is happening. But whether or not there is the political will to do that is hard to say. With reports of people such as Mark Zuckerberg having secret dinners with Donald Trump and Peter Thiel while positioning Breitbart News as equivalent to The New York Times and The Washington Post as a news source, it is clear that their economic stance will always be political in nature, regardless of what they tell anyone.