Social media ‘the greatest propaganda machine in history’
TALI FEINBERG AND JTA
The Spy star spoke at the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL’s) 2019 “Never Is Now” summit on anti-Semitism and hate in New York City on 21 November. He said his work as a comedian exposed him to centuries-old stereotypes, racism, and pure lack of knowledge, and “fear and fanaticism find fertile ground in the echo chamber that is social media”.
“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 delegitimised 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,” he said.
“All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to 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 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.’”
Ironically, his speech has gone viral on social media. The points he made, including, “On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate … We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends,” clearly resonated with users. He explained that while social-media companies had taken some steps to reduce hate and conspiracies on their platforms, “These have been mostly superficial.” He warned that “pluralistic democracies are on a precipice, and that the next twelve months and the role of social media could be a determinant. A sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threatens democracy and our planet – this cannot possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind.”
Baron Cohen called out Mark Zuckerberg’s recent speech that warned against new laws and regulations for companies like Facebook. “First, Zuckerberg tried to portray this whole issue as ‘choices … around free expression’. That’s ludicrous. This isn’t 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.
“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.”
Baron Cohen pointed out that Zuckerberg said he found posts denying the Holocaust “deeply offensive”, but he didn’t think Facebook should take them down. “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. 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?” he asked rhetorically.
“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.
“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 reportedly it hasn’t because it would eject some very prominent politicians from its 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.”
He suggested that social-media companies be made to abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines, and TV news do.
“In every other industry, a company can be held liable when their product is defective. It only seems fair to say to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter: your product is defective; you are obliged to fix it, no matter how much it costs, and no matter how many moderators you need to employ.