While accepting the Anti-Defamation League’s International Leadership Award last week, the comic Sacha Baron Cohen took the occasion to both rip Mark Zuckerberg a new asshole and pitch his plan on how to fix the problem of fake news, extremism, and the spread of hate on social media.
Cohen, speaking about the wrongs that online platforms have wrought, called Facebook the “greatest propaganda machine in history,” and said social media has allowed for the dissemination of conspiracies, the interference of elections, the recruitment of extremists, and the rise of genocide in Myanmar. Cohen blames this on what he calls the “Silicon Six,” or the six people who lead Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google, and he wants them to give this power up. “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,” Cohen said during his address.
Assuming this isn't a bit, what could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, let’s just look at a few democratically elected representatives currently serving in office: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Nicolás Maduro, and Jair Bolsonaro. All of them, under Cohen’s plan, would “have at least some say” in what’s allowed on the internet. Cohen seems to have a lot of faith in elected officials, so perhaps he’s forgotten that Hitler was also democratically elected.
Cohen doesn’t specify how, exactly, government censors would be utilized, but it’s not hard to imagine how this could work in the U.S. The same way there’s an agency for, say, the regulation of the environment or education, perhaps we would have an agency for the regulation of internet content. Then, every time a new party is elected, that agency would prioritize the party’s particular whims and values.
This is what really confuses me about Cohen’s argument, because who does he think is going to be targeted by the people currently in office? I’m guessing it might be the guy who spreads fake news, targets politicians he doesn’t like, and then tricks them into humiliating themselves on camera. Someone precisely like Sacha Baron Cohen himself.
Cohen might not be aware of this, but Republicans are indeed in power in this country, and should his vision come to pass before that changes, here are a few of segments from his show Who Is America that I can imagine currently elected representatives having a slight problem with: Dick Cheney signs a waterboard, Joe Arpaio says he’d take a blowjob from Donald Trump, Congressman Jason Spencer pulls down his pants and screams the n-word, and, of course, Roy Moore takes a pedophile test. I doubt these Sacha Baron Cohen hits would last long on the government-controlled Facebook, although James O’Keefe stings of Democrats and Planned Parenthood would probably be fine.
That’s the thing about government-compelled censorship: Once it’s written into law, it doesn’t stop being enforceable when the wrong people come into power. When you imagine the power to censor in Donald Trump’s hands, you can see all the ways this idea could go wrong.
Luckily for us, the First Amendment likely protects against Cohen’s plan to enlist our electeds as internet censors.
Cohen did, however, offer one more specific solution: He said that “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.”
It is, perhaps, no surprise that he would name ADL while delivering the keynote at that group’s event, but it’s also a flawed idea. If you want to root out misinformation on the internet, advocacy groups are perhaps the least reliable resource you can choose. The ADL, for instance, has long equated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and has repeatedly tried to discredit the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel as anti-Jewish. The ADL celebrated Trump’s announcement to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and called Minnesota Rep. Omar Ilhan “un-American.” Do we really want a group that considers criticism of Israel inherently bigoted determining what is and what is not “hate speech” on the internet? Personally, I think not, but this goes to show just how complicated this problem is. Who gets to decide what is hate speech and what is not?
Would, I wonder, the ADL allow the 2006 clip of the Cohen character Borat leading a bar in a round of “throw the Jew down the well” in Tuscon, Arizona? Maybe. It is, after all, a demonstration of anti-Semitism rather than an endorsement of it, although at the time, ADL director Abraham Foxman criticized Cohen and said, “You’re not going to eradicate [anti-Semitism] by making fun of it.” Of course, that was before they gave him a leadership award—although for some reason I doubt the ADL would endorse a 2018 skit in which Cohen's character tried to prevent an Orthodox Jew from voting by laying strips of uncooked bacon in front of him.
I understand why Cohen thinks the internet is going to lead to the decline of civilization. It feels like it, especially when you look at Donald Trump’s Twitter. But he’s wrong about one very key fact here: Facebook is not, actually, the “greatest propaganda machine in history.” That, I would argue, is actually religion, which has disseminated propaganda far longer and with far greater consequences than Facebook. But even when you look at modern-day propaganda machines, Facebook doesn’t compare to the misinformation spread by cable news, according to Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law and the author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. Benkler did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in an interview with the Washington Post, he argues that it’s not Facebook that is the biggest propaganda machine; it’s Fox News.
“Surveys make it clear that Fox News is by far the most influential outlet on the American right—more than five times as many Trump supporters reported using Fox News as their primary news outlet than those who named Facebook,” Benkler said. “And Trump support was highest among demographics whose social media use was lowest.” Trump fans didn’t find out about conspiracy theories like Seth Rich and Pizzagate and #ButHerEmails on Facebook; they found out about these when they were picked up, validated, and broadcast by Fox News. If you want to eradicate the spread of fake news, it's Fox News, not Facebook, that's the problem.
Besides, not only does Fox News have vastly more influence on the American right than Facebook does, we don’t actually know if “fake news” stories published either online or on Fox News change minds or if they just reinforce the bullshit people already believed before. Does that mean fake news isn’t a problem? No, and I get why Cohen is concerned about how online discourse is impacting society. I’m concerned about it too, and I have no doubt that the algorithms that feed us content do so not to improve the world or spread knowledge but to keep eyeballs on the screen and make shareholders money. But at the same time, he completely fails to reckon with what the potential side-effects of his solution, which, ironically, could mean a hell of a lot less Sacha Baron Cohen content on social media.