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Sacha Baron Cohen follows up his viral speech with a scathing op-ed against social media

The comedian has some serious bones to pick with Facebook and the other members of the “Silicon Six.”

Sacha Baron Cohen follows up his viral speech with a scathing op-ed against social media
[Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic via Getty Images]

Sacha Baron Cohen is known for embarrassing powerful people through the guise of a character. Just last year on his Showtime series, Who Is America?, he got Sarah Palin, Joe Arpaio, and Dick Cheney, and he even tricked Representative Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, into appearing in a PSA for the “Kinderguardian” program, which would give young children guns.

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Last week, however, Cohen didn’t need a character to take Mark Zuckerberg to task.

In a scathing speech at the Anti-Defamation League’s summit in New York on anti-Semitism and hate, the funnyman cast Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube as “the greatest propaganda machine in history.” His speech ended up going viral, particularly the part in which he declares that, according to Facebook’s policy as stated by Zuckerberg, the company would have let Hitler buy ads in the 1930s.

After seeing how many people his speech managed to find, Cohen has now expanded on his message with an op-ed in Monday morning’s Washington Post.

He starts the piece off by acknowledging the reasons some readers might be loath to care about his opinion—namely, the fact that he has made a career out of fooling hapless marks into revealing their true selves through characters like Borat. Instead of letting this be a distraction from his message, he makes it a part of it.

“The ugliness my jokes help reveal is why I’m so worried about our pluralistic democracies,” he writes early on.

From there, he unsparingly calls out social media’s complicity in the ongoing erosion of objective truth.

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Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify content that keeps users engaged—stories that appeal to our baser instincts and trigger outrage and fear. That’s why fake news outperforms real news on social media; studies show that lies spread faster than truth.

On the Internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC, and the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.

While he has harsh words for all the CEOs enabling our current social media standards, Cohen appears especially vexed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, whom he calls out by name numerous times.

Zuckerberg claimed that new limits on social media would “pull back on free expression.” This is utter nonsense. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law” abridging freedom of speech, but this does not apply to private businesses. If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and saying he wants to kill Jews, would the restaurant owner be required to serve him an elegant eight-course meal? Of course not. The restaurant owner has every legal right, and, indeed, a moral obligation, to kick the Nazi out. So do Internet companies.

As Cohen is the first to admit, he is an unlikely harbinger for a message about social media reform. However, his eloquence, urgency, and command of the facts make him someone worth taking seriously.

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