Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor and comedian best known for brilliant satirical characters such as wannabe gangster Ali G, Khazakstani journalist Borat, and flamboyantly gay fashion reporter Brüno Gehard, recently received an award from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish organisation that fights anti-Semitism and other forms of hate.
Of Cohen, the group said: “Sacha Baron Cohen is the well-deserved recipient of ADL’s International Leadership Award, which goes to exceptional individuals who combine professional success with a profound personal commitment to community involvement and to crossing borders and barriers with a message of diversity and equal opportunity.
“Over 100 years ago Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote: ‘Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.’ Through his alter egos, many of whom represent anti-Semites, racists and neo-Nazis, Baron Cohen shines a piercing light on people’s ignorance and biases.”
So far, there’s little to argue with. Cohen’s characters, by virtue of the offensive opinions they express, are shining examples of how free speech combats hatred and bigotry by lampooning those who hold such views.
In his acceptance speech, however, he railed against large social media platforms, calling out the “ideological imperialism” of Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Brin’s ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Jack Dorsey at Twitter. He calls them the “Silicon Six” and says they “decide what information so much of the world sees”, through their platforms, which constitute “the greatest propaganda machine in history”.
In decrying the hatred, bigotry, fake news, conspiracy theories and state propaganda that users of these services spread, he’s not wrong. There is a lot of that about, and it undoubtedly has a negative impact on society. I’m not trying to defend any of it.
I also deeply distrust the people he named. I left Facebook in 2008 because I don’t trust it. Zuckerberg once called his users “stupid fucks” for entrusting him with their data, so I resolved not to be among them. I avoid using Google products as much as possible, because I don’t want it to do what Cohen accuses it of, namely amplify my own biases. I use DuckDuckGo because unlike Google and most other search engines, it does not track me, it does not remember my search history, and it does not tell me what it thinks I want to hear. So I’m not trying to defend any of the tech companies either.
There are two ways of dealing with offensive, subversive, mistaken or malicious speech. One is to contradict it with empirical facts and reasoned argument. The other is to silence the speaker. In calling for regulation of social media platforms, Cohen seeks to combat bad speech not with more and better speech, but with censorship.
He’ll be pleased to know that US President Donald Trump entirely agrees with him. At a recent White House Social Media Summit, he too railed against “the honchos at tech companies”, for being unfair and publishing “fake news”.
“And we don’t want to stifle anything, we certainly don’t want to stifle free speech. But that’s no longer free speech,” said Trump, according to Mediaite. “See, I don’t think that the mainstream media is free speech either, because it’s so crooked, it’s so dishonest.
“So to me, free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write bad, to me that’s very dangerous speech, and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.”
Cohen focuses his attack on Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, making several numbered points. Let’s consider each of them.
“First, Zuckerberg tried to portray this whole issue as ‘choices… around free expression.’ That is ludicrous. This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. Sadly, there will always be racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and child abusers. But I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and paedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.”
This logic is faulty. By the same reasoning, we could forbid someone with whom we disagree from printing leaflets, setting up their own website, or even just speaking in public. Denying someone reach is the exact same thing as denying them speech. So it is about limiting someone’s free speech.
Now you might argue that doing so is justified, but Cohen tries to pretend the action is something other than what it really is. And this isn’t the only contradiction in his proposals that he wilfully ignores.
He doesn’t deal with the problem of who sets the standards for what counts as bigotry, or of false accusations against people. Many people get their social media postings removed or their accounts banned based on malicious reports by users or mistaken actions by moderators. There often is no recourse.
I’ve been called a racist or a sexist more often than I can count. A prominent academic recently called me a white supremacist, on the grounds that (a) I’m white, and (b) I defend capitalism. That was the entirety of the argument. Should I now be denied “reach”? And how would that practically differ from denying me freedom of speech?
If an atheist says something about someone else’s religion that followers of that religion find insulting, Cohen’s proposals would have them banned from social media as a bigot. Who sets the standards for what constitutes bigotry, and on what grounds?
“Second, Zuckerberg claimed that new limits on what’s posted on social media would be to ‘pull back on free 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 companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.
If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and saying he wants to kill Jews, would the owner of the restaurant be required to serve him an elegant eight-course meal? Of course not! The restaurant owner has every legal right and a moral obligation to kick the Nazi out, and so do these internet companies.”
It is true that social media companies could choose to make any rules they like, and indeed, they do so. Even 4chan, that notorious source of internet memes, conspiracy theories and Poe’s Law-style bigotry, has rules.
But Cohen is calling for government regulation, not private content rules. He complains that social media platforms are “unaccountable to any government and acting as if they’re above the reach of law”.
That isn’t like the restaurant ejecting the Nazi. That’s like “Congress passing a law” that says the restaurant must eject the Nazi. Why should anyone be accountable to a government for what they say?
Cohen’s proposal, that government creates laws to regulate social media, is a direct violation of the First Amendment. Again, he doesn’t even notice the contradiction.
Note also his extreme examples. Earlier, we saw Cohen conflated bigots of various kinds with paedophiles. Now, he caricatures them as “threatening other customers and saying he wants to kill Jews”.
Very few real racists go around saying that sort of stuff. If they did, the matter would be black and white (if you’ll forgive me the racist expression). They don’t, however, which makes it far harder to identify and act against them without infringing either their own rights or the rights of innocents caught up in the dragnet of the speech police.
Take the ADL itself, for example. Among its values, it says:
“We stand up for the Jewish State of Israel – the only democratically elected government in the Middle East.”
Many people do not agree with this sentiment and think the ADL supports a racist, fascist and even genocidal regime. In a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the South African government has officially compared the policies of the State of Israel to those of apartheid, which was formally declared a crime against humanity. Do social media companies now have “every legal right and a moral obligation” to kick the ADL off their platforms?
And if the ADL gets to stay, do we ban pro-Palestinian activists who despise Israel? Who decides what constitutes hate and bigotry?
“Third, Zuckerberg seemed to equate regulation of companies like his to the actions of ‘the most repressive societies.’ Incredible. This, from one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees… It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.
“Here’s an idea. Instead of letting the Silicon Six decide the fate of the world, let our elected representatives, voted for by the people, of every democracy in the world, have at least some say.”
Let’s leave aside that he’s perfectly fine with dissing Zuckerberg’s haircut, but would probably be deeply offended if the same comment was made about a feminist’s pink hair or an African’s braids.
Zuckerberg does definitely not decide what information so much of the world sees. That’s his entire point. He doesn’t want to decide it, and in fact, doesn’t have the capacity to decide it.
He is a private individual, running a private company, and people are free to choose whether or not to use his service. That is entirely unlike Caesar, who was an autocrat who wielded the power of law and a monopoly on force against dissenting citizens.
Ironically, by calling for regulation, Cohen wants to grant governments the powers of Caesar to “decide what information so much of the world sees”, a power which Zuckerberg never had.
That power, of determining what citizens are not allowed to say in public, is exactly what happens in the most repressive societies. Out of 149 surveyed countries, only 30 have no freedom of speech restrictions, and only 40 do not spy on their citizens. China is the largest country that limits what its citizens may say online. Egypt, Russia, Turkmenistan and Iran are not far behind among the most repressive governments when it comes to online activity.
Does Cohen really want the US, and the rest of the world, to be more like China, Iran and Russia? Does he think people enjoy free speech in those countries?
“Fourth, Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a ‘diversity of ideas,’ and last year he gave us an example. He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust ‘deeply offensive’, but he didn’t think Facebook should take them down ‘because I think there are things that different people get wrong’. At this very moment, there are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google still takes you to the most repulsive Holocaust denial sites with a simple click. One of the heads of Google once told me, incredibly, that these sites just show ‘both sides’ of the issue. This is madness.
“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.
“Still, Zuckerberg says that ‘people should decide what is credible, not tech companies’. But at a time when two-thirds of millennials say they haven’t even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what’s ‘credible’? How are they supposed to know that the lie is a lie?
“There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”
Where to start. Of course, the Holocaust is a historical fact. Nobody said there are two equal and logical sides to that story. The same is true for the fact that the Earth is round, but that’s no reason to “purge” flat-Earth lunatics.
“No idea is above scrutiny and no people are beneath dignity,” said Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamic extremist turned counter-extremism activist. Coming from Egypt, where “freedom of speech” is constitutionally guaranteed, but the internet is heavily censored and many people have been fined or imprisoned for their online activity, Nawaz is well familiar with the consequences when governments start to dictate the limits of free speech, as Cohen wants.
Then Cohen says that people are not well-informed, so someone else ought to tell them what they should believe. This is paternalistic nonsense.
There actually is no such thing as objective truth. There are things that are very probably true, and very probably not, but nobody has a monopoly on truth. Nobody is omniscient. And there is certainly no reason to believe that social media “monitors” would have any more of a clue than anyone else.
According to an in-depth investigation by The Verge, Facebook’s existing 15,000 moderators are underpaid, overworked and traumatised. Many suffer from mental health problems, caused or exacerbated by the content they have to deal with. Some turn to drugs and sex to numb the stress. Others start to believe the conspiracy theories and hatred they are supposed to combat.
Does Zuckerberg really think that an overworked, underpaid pothead with PTSD is a reasonable judge of “objective truth”? Does he think paying them more will make them more competent and capable of dealing with the trauma of constantly being immersed in the seedy underbelly of the internet?
“Fifth, when discussing the difficulty of removing content, Zuckerberg asked ‘where do you draw the line’? Yes, drawing the line can be difficult. But here’s what he’s really saying: removing more of these lies and conspiracies is just too expensive.
“These are the richest companies in the world, and they have the best engineers in the world. They could fix these problems if they wanted to. Twitter could deploy an algorithm to remove more white supremacist hate speech, but they reportedly haven’t because it would eject some very prominent politicians from their platform. Maybe that’s not a bad thing! The truth is, 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.”
Ah, so he admits that “drawing the line can be difficult”, but then he just glosses over it.
Drawing the line is not a trivial problem. His own work has been banned in many countries, and partially censored by the MPAA even in the US. Should we conclude that the content that was cut was, in fact, racist, sexist or otherwise objectionable? And if so, why shouldn’t we treat Cohen as a pariah, to be kicked off social media sites?
He says we could just let an algorithm do it. But even human beings often don’t get sarcasm or humour. How on Earth does he expect social media companies to write an algorithm to do what humans cannot? How would you distinguish between those who spread flat-Earth propaganda as a joke and those who seriously believe the “conspiracy theory”? How would an algorithm do so?
How does Cohen think his brand of humour, which deploys brutal bigotry and ignorance as satire, would get past a censorship algorithm? Should a special exception be made for him? And if for him, why not for everyone else?
There is probably some truth in the fact that outrage and fear drive engagement, which in turn drives profits. But that does not mean it is an easy problem to solve. Besides, as Salman Rushdie said so eloquently: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
Cohen goes on to describe social media platforms as “publishers”. The reason is that publishers are held accountable for what they publish. There is a very good reason why social media platforms cannot be considered publishers, however. They do not decide who gets to say what. They do not approve or reject content. They react to reports of rule-breaking conduct, but they cannot possibly vet every single piece of content, which numbers in the tens of billions per day. Holding them accountable for something over which they have no control is unjust.
But Cohen wants them to be publishers. He called for a delay between posting and publication so that censors (sorry, “monitors”) can vet content and catch objectionable postings before they happen. He would prohibit live-streaming because it is “unnecessary”.
He does not believe that the vast majority of people are adult enough to speak without first asking permission from social media moguls and the state.
Who is Cohen, or anyone else, to decide what people find necessary? Why should instant social-media conversations be reduced to post office correspondence speeds. What kind of backward thinking is that?
And if governments regulate social media, and social media companies employ hundreds of thousands of “monitors”, what makes Cohen think this would not turn into a repressive dystopia?
After all, the targets of censorship will most likely defect to alternative platforms. At the moment, the defections are a small minority. Increasingly strict posting rules caused a few people to leave Reddit for Voat, Twitter and Facebook for Gab, Youtube for BitChute, and even 4chan for 8chan.
Once Cohen’s government regulators catch up with them, it is easy to start a new, censorship-free site. Inevitably, regulation of social media would end up in blanket censorship of the entire internet. Just ask China.
Has Cohen considered that in the US, the Trump administration would make the rules for what people may or may not post on social media? Does he really want to fall in line with Trump’s definition of “fake news”?
He complains that foreign governments exploit social media to influence domestic elections. Of course they do. They exploit whatever diplomatic and public relations means they can to sway events in their favour.
Before social media, they used radio broadcasts on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. They’d use subtly planted newspaper articles, or infiltrate unions and other civil society structures. Some would just use economic power and the threat of military might. And few countries are more guilty of foreign election meddling than the US and UK themselves. The outrage about Russian propaganda screams of hypocrisy.
He says that the Myanmar government’s genocide of the Rohingya Muslims was facilitated through Facebook, as the New York Times reported in 2018. Does he really think that without Facebook, it wouldn’t have happened? The Rwanda genocide didn’t need social media. Neither did any other genocide. Did Goebbels use social media as a propaganda tool? No, he used newspapers, radio and films. Should newspapers, radio and film be regulated by governments as a consequence? They were regulated, controlled and censored by every genocidal regime in history.
Moreover, which government would Cohen like to see in charge of social media? Presumably not the Myanmar government.
Cohen is right to be concerned about online hatred, bigotry, fake news, conspiracy theories and state propaganda. His proposed solution, however, is riddled with contradictions.
He seems to labour under the illusion that government regulation of social media would not restrict free speech, but it would do so by its very definition. Granting governments the power of censorship is a very dangerous precedent to set.
He quotes Voltaire, who said, “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”.
That may be so, but governments with the power to control what people are permitted to say can commit atrocities without the public even knowing. This is the world of censorship and repression Cohen unwittingly advocates. Well, I don’t. DM