You had to have been on Mars over the past few days to miss the buzz created by actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech at the Anti-Defamation League’s summit on Saturday night in New York City.
The British comedian, who made a name for himself playing characters such as Ali G, Borat, and others, spent his time on stage leveling scathing criticism at internet giants Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube, which he called “the greatest propaganda machine in history.”
The video of the speech proved his point as it instantly went viral on … Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube. Those who didn’t share the video commented on it, and those who didn’t comment on it ridiculed those who commented or shared it. Baron Cohen was trending all over social media.
Most of all, Baron Cohen proved that a good actor, especially one with a polished British accent, can win over the audience with a well-written text, regardless of whether it’s a recipe for duck à l’orange, a skit about gun lovers in the US, or a flaming speech about the hate crimes taking place worldwide.
Baron Cohen is charismatic, well-spoken, and appeals to the most primal emotion of all mankind: fear. This makes him an excellent propagandist.
That does not mean he is completely wrong, but it does not make him entirely right, either.
The main argument Baron Cohen made in his speech, which is neither original nor new, is that social media platforms do not assume the mantle of preventing the numerous lies and profound hatred that is disseminated through them. Baron Cohen echoed the global criticism of the ease by which one can spread conspiracy theories, invent news headlines, make up figures, and incite against sectors, genders, minorities, and religions.
He was particularly troubled by the rise in hate crimes, and especially by incidents of anti-Semitism. He believes Facebook must censor racism, hate, and fake news out of private users’ accounts — and certainly from paid ads.
He then uttered what became the go-to soundbite of the entire speech, saying, “If Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem.'”
“Thanks to social media, conspiracies take hold, it’s easier for hate groups to recruit, easier for foreign intelligence agencies to interfere in our elections, and easier for a country like Myanmar to commit genocide against the Rohingya,” he continued.
But Hitler murdered six million Jews (and at the same time, Josef Stalin murdered tens of millions of people) with no need for Facebook, and it is doubtful it would have been “easier,” as Baron Cohen put it, if the internet was around at the time.
One can wonder whether Facebook’s existence during World War II would have changed the course of history. It may be argued, with the same hypothetical accuracy, that the existence of social media during the war would have exposed the world to the atrocities in real-time, and might possibly have brought about the end of the war sooner, saving lives.
Furthermore, at no other time in human history were there fewer genocides than in the decade and a half since Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were launched.
The Rohingya genocide in Myanmar is atrocious, but, in historical terms, it is a much smaller event than the genocides that took place in Rwanda or Cambodia a relatively short time before we ever heard of Mark Zuckerberg. In Myanmar, about 10,000 Rohingya were murdered; in Rwanda — a mere decade before the birth of Facebook — between half a million and a million Tutsi and Hutu people were murdered.
Tyrant and génocidaires do not need social media to execute their nefarious plans. Syrian President Bashar Assad is butchering his people — about 500,000 were killed in the Syrian civil war in less than a decade — and we all know what happened in Homs and Aleppo, just hundreds of miles from our home, largely thanks to social media.
The existence — or nonexistence — of social media would not have prevented that massacre. Unfortunately — as no one is interfering in what is happening in Syria — we can at least hope that the wide exposure that Assad’s actions get will somehow mitigate the dreadful outcome there.
Human history shows that where information does not flow freely and in times when information is blocked by geographical barriers and can only slowly creep out to the rest of the world — that is when the worst kind of atrocities take place.
It is doubtful that it is possible to truly build a human society free of evil, hatred, and violence — documented centuries prove that — but history has also shown that nothing good ever comes from regulating information. Not when the church controlled what people were allowed to read, not when emperors or royal houses determined what was true and what was false, and not when states exercise institutionalized censorship — in culture, in the judiciary or in the military.
Information can be dangerous, yes. But it is also the most significant weapon in the war against threats to human beings’ complete and free existence.
Hatred, racism, anti-Semitism — they are all fueled by ignorance. Ignorant people will always be around, but it is precisely through social media that they can be fought. “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it,” as author Jonathan Swift once said (centuries before the internet was invented). But the truth has a platform and visibility and it reaches its destination, eventually.
The #MeToo revolution would never have happened without social media. The fight against police racism in the United States and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement would not have taken place without YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook. The ability of every citizen to upload a video to social media in real-time has become one of the most important tools in the fight against violence. And for every president like Donald Trump, who exploits social media to spread hate, there is a president like Barack Obama, who uses it to spread unity.
It’s the tax laws, stupid
In his speech, Baron Cohen called for government regulation to be imposed on Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube, something he compared to the existing regulation the US imposes, for example, on television networks. “If there are standards and practices for what cinemas and television channels can show, then surely companies that publish material to billions of people should have to abide by basic standards and practices too,” he said.
That is a really scary thought. Internet giants have a lot of power, yes, and there are quite a few problems in how they use this power. But the thought that it would be handed over to a bunch of politicians, or a handful of politically appointed individuals is far more frightening.
At the same time, Baron Cohen urged these companies to simply hire more content monitors. This, too, is not exactly a joyous prospect. There was a time in Israel when users’ Facebook accounts would just disappear because a few years earlier they shared nude images of a woman who had undergone a mastectomy, asking to lift the veil of shame around it. To this day, Instagram does not allow users to upload even partially nude photos, because, as far as it is concerned a photo from the Vietnam War, for example, is akin to one of Kim Kardashian.
There are many issues with the way Facebook, Twitter, and Google operate, but very few of them stem from the lack of regulation of the content posted on them. If anything, it would be much more practical and appropriate to review these companies’ conduct as service providers.
It is more important, for example, to make sure that, by virtue of their vital social roles, social media platforms be obliged by law to maintain absolute neutrality. The tangible possibility that Google, for example, will tinker with its search results in favor of any presidential candidate is infinitely more frightening than any foreign country’s attempt to interfere in elections through the dissemination of lies on Facebook.
It is important to create binding regulations regarding privacy, especially with respect to minors. The fact that all these companies trade their users as a commodity is at the heart of the problem: Google, for example, has become a huge company thanks to contextual advertising, but it soon found that straight up user-targeted advertising is more profitable. It would be best if the latter is simply outlawed.
And it is important to collect taxes from these companies. Yes. It sounds unrelated, but internet giants are disproportionately wealthy companies that owe their wealth to the human beings in whose information they trade without giving back anything in return.
The world would be better off if these companies were made to pay taxes in full. Aggregated, these are billions of dollars that can be spent on education, health, sports, and culture. These funds can go toward the police and law enforcement, and they can make it possible to aid refugees, and fight disease, hunger, and poverty. And genocide, violence, hatred, and anti-Semitism could be prevented through the financial support and strengthening of the very organizations and public institutions that have long made that their mission.
“The Silicon Six” cannot be saddled with the weight of human evil. And the responsibility for fighting evil cannot simply be privatized to those six.