Sacha Baron Cohen on Facebook: They could fix these problems if they wanted

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It’s safe to say that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have a great time on Capitol Hill last month. Zuck went to Washington expecting to talk with the House Financial Services Committee about Facebook’s crypto-currency, Libra (which doesn’t yet exist). Instead, he was questioned about other aspects of the social network, including Facebook’s stance on political ads, and not removing ads that include lies. Sacha Baron Cohen also recently laid into Facebook while speaking with the Anti-Defamation League, taking a more serious tone publicly than he’s known for (which he acknowledged) in his remarks. Video of parts of his speech is embedded below, and the full text “>is at The Guardian. I’ve excerpted from the beginning, when he talks about how he has tried to use his comedy to challenge “bigotry and intolerance” and how social media amplifies those things:

Now, I realize that some of you may be thinking, what the hell is a comedian doing speaking at a conference like this! I certainly am. I’ve spent most of the past two decades in character. In fact, this is the first time that I have ever stood up and given a speech as my least popular character, Sacha Baron Cohen. And I have to confess, it is terrifying…

The truth is, I’ve been passionate about challenging bigotry and intolerance throughout my life. As a teenager in the UK, I marched against the fascist National Front and to abolish apartheid. As an undergraduate, I traveled around America and wrote my thesis about the civil rights movement, with the help of the archives of the ADL. And as a comedian, 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…

That’s why I appreciate the opportunity to be here with you. Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason – the era of evidential argument – is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.

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.

The greatest propaganda machine in history.

Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others – they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged – stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history – the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”

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.

[From The Guardian]

I don’t think I’ve ever heard Sacha speak “as himself.” He’s so eloquent here, and I appreciate how he lays out this problem. He points out, “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.” This is one of the horrifying aspects of this multi-headed issue to me: Facebook, Google, Twitter, Youtube, et al. have the abilities to deal with these issues, but they choose not to because they want to make more money and reach more people. It’s beyond reprehensible. I’m glad lawmakers are taking Zuck to task. He seems to think he’s untouchable. Is he? Is Facebook? I hope not, but I’ve become more and more terrified how much dangerous lies are left unchallenged, or, if they are challenged, nothing concrete seems to come of that. I haven’t been watching the impeachment hearings because of my schedule, but also because I’m anxious that no matter how much sense people make, how much evidence they present and corroborate, nothing is going to change. I feel like the same may be true of Facebook. If the company isn’t going to be responsible and fact-check ads, then what? This is exactly what Trump and others of his ilk want: To be able to say and do whatever they want with no consequences and to just rile up their base. I’m not sure what kind of publicity Zuck needs to change his ways.

Here’s an excerpt from Sacha’s speech:

Embed from Getty Images

Photos credit: Getty and

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26 Responses to “Sacha Baron Cohen on Facebook: They could fix these problems if they wanted”

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  1. Rapunzel says:

    He looks so good in that green shirt pic. Dang!

  2. Aims says:

    Sacha is a pretty smart guy. He’s always shown the ridiculous nature of hate. With Borat, he put the spotlight on the bigotry and brilliantly made fun of the idiotic rhetoric. He’s right by the way. If social media wanted to shutdown hate, the could. It’s about money, which is pretty despicable.

    • ME says:

      Hate has been around long before the internet was invented. Hitler didn’t need the internet to spreed his sh*t. Racism, sexism, etc. has always existed and always will. Who are we kidding? The internet did nothing more than expose people’s true feelings with anonymity. It would be nice to think that fb could actually help eradicate the sh*t that is in this world, but that’s not going to happen.

      • Aims says:

        I agree. There has always been hate and there will always be hate. With the internet, it became a tool, imo. These disgusting people were able to have protection. The are able to spew the their rhetoric while doing so in the comfort of their homes.

      • ME says:

        @ Aims

        100% agree.

      • Rusted says:

        Yes, hatred has always existed. But the internet amplifies and spreads the hatred with terrifying breadth and speed.

      • ME says:

        @ Rusted

        Yes but that hatred is only absorbed by people who already think similarly. So the seed is already there. The internet is not making people racist or sexist, those people already exist and will continue to exist. Most people’s beliefs are formed long before they engage on the internet. Unless the internet can reach a small baby or toddler who’s mind is still forming, the internet is not creating hateful people, just showcasing ones that already exist.

      • Caitrin says:

        30% of those under 30 in Poland are unaware that the Holocaust happened. That’s because false information has been weaponized through social media platforms like YouTube.

        Of course hate has been around forever. Of course people can hide behind keyboards in relative anonymity. But the Internet has irrevocably changed how we receive and process information. Free speech absolutists miss the biggest logical hole in the argument for the marketplace of ideas – the marketplace doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and false, hateful commentary can be lent credence through slick marketing. Propaganda has changed, and it’s even more deadly than it was in the 1930’s.

        I work for a Jewish organization, and hate is ABSOLUTELY spiking – not just in those for whom it was already latent or less expressed, but also because of places like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, which indulgently let a-holes manipulate those with less discerning minds.

      • Vanessa says:

        Duh. We all know hate and bigotry have always existed. The point he’s making is how quickly bigotry and lies are spread, and that they can be construed as the ‘truth’ to people who aren’t discerning enough to recognise it.

      • ME says:

        @ Caitrin

        Thank you for your response. You make some very good points. One question though, do they not teach about the Holocaust in school in Poland ? Or is this 30% you speak of those that never went to school?

      • Pineapple says:

        Me …. the science and psychology behind the emotional incitement has changed. The algorithms help to determine what messages get humans MOST upset. They are used to increase fear and spread lies in ways never seen until now. HBO has a movie on called Brexit. It was FASCINATING and explained the sad, illegal use Facebook is being put to. It’s inciting hate, in unparalleled ways.

  3. Mirage says:

    Such an important speech and indeed, very well articulated by Sacha Baron Cohen. I hope it has the impact it deserves!

  4. Erinn says:

    They could at the very least improve on the issues dramatically if they couldn’t just ‘fix it’.

    There are a lot of people who do seem to think it’s just a matter of flipping a switch and things will be okay. There’s a lot involved when it comes to changing algorithms and relying on ai to take care of piracy/conspiracy/online threats. There are a lot of people who become affected when changes like that happen, and sometimes the AI starts picking up on legitimate things and flagging them. It’s a difficult topic, but at the same time, they should be able to do SOMETHING.

    And he’s right. They’re wildly wealthy. They can employ the best people. They SHOULD be at the very least working hard on this in a meaningful way with intentions to implement the change ASAP.

  5. Jem says:

    He is completely right. It’s so disheartening. What can we do to fix this?

    Also he’s excellent in “The Spy”.

    • Lena says:

      Yes I agree with his comment the age of reason is gone. I think facebook should ban all political ads because who needs that crap on your feed?

    • Rusted says:

      Was just thinking the same thing: great dramatic turn in “The Spy.”

  6. Valiantly Varnished says:

    That speech was AMAZING and he was right on every count. And Zuck will not change his ways until more and more people stop using his platforms. Right now he has no real incentive to do so. In fact – quite the opposite. Because now he has cozied up to the GOP who will do what they can to protect him while he gives them millions in campaign funds.

  7. adastraperaspera says:

    Zuckerberg and Theil sat down for a private dinner with Trump in October. No agenda for the meeting or notes were shared with the public. Then last week, over 6,000 ads ran on Facebook attacking the impeachment inquiry–estimates are that Zuckerberg made at least 1 million dollars on those. Facebook morphed from a “rating girls” website to the vehicle for Citizen’s United’s version of “money as speech.” It deploys weaponized disinformation that is intended to weaken democracy. It needs to be stripped of a corporate charter and closed down.

  8. PPP says:

    I encourage anyone interested in these issues to listen to the “Behind the Bastards” podcast on Zuckerberg. They really, really lay out how inadequate Facebook’s response to literal genocide is. For instance, non-FB affiliates raised a red flag about an ad going around saying an ethnic group was going around kidnapping babies, and it took 3 days for FB to respond, and they decided not to remove the ad. Meanwhile, breast-feeding pictures get flagged and removed immediately.

    Another thing people don’t realize is that FB is largely the company that rolls out the internet in many developing countries, so that for many people it is impossible to use the internet at all without a FB account. For us you can look at the fact that many services allow you to use a FB account instead of gmail or e-mail in order to register– these are all soft-power moves that aim to make having a FB account an indispensable part of your daily life. Like, I still have mine. It’s necessary for networking.


  9. Stacy Dresden says:

    So glad he has spoken out on this issue. I wish Zuckerberg would see the light. But he’s having secret meetings with Trump.

  10. Elizabeth Batchelder says:

    His comedy is hit or miss for me, but he is amazing as a serious actor in The Spy.

  11. Caitrin says:

    Y’all, I really encourage you to watch his entire remarks – I stuck my husband in front of my laptop over the weekend and asked him to watch them, and he was riveted.

    This is important.

  12. Lillian says:

    Thank you for covering this- he is so very right.

  13. Whataboutme says:

    I work in the digital marketing space and it’s a really grey area.

    How should Facebook decided what to censor? Even if it was just to follow the laws of each country things get really murky.

    For example, homosexuality in Russia is illegal and Yet if Facebook followed the laws of that country it could block Russians accessing information that shows acceptance of homosexuality leaving people inside the country feeling isolated and alone.

    I agree there should be more done but working out what is difficult. Even banning all political advertising just means political parties will find ways to get around that like setting up fake think tanks to run ads supporting their policies.