In a fiery speech Thursday, director and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen called out social media companies that he argued had boosted extremism and conspiracy theories with little regard for their impact.
Cohen called Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter and other internet giants “the greatest propaganda machine in history” and pinned the blame on them for amplifying hateful content.
“Breitbart resembles the BBC,” he said. “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.”
Cohen largely focused on recent remarks from the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, in which the CEO laid out an argument against regulations on massive social media sites like his own.
“Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach,” Cohen argued, comparing social media websites to brick-and-mortar businesses.
“If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and saying he wants 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,” he said.
He lambasted the concentrated power tech CEOs have on the web, calling the leaders of Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and the latter pair’s parent company Alphabet “The Silicon Six”
“The Silicon Six—all billionaires, all Americans—who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy,” he said. “This is ideological imperialism—six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law.”
That power is evident in the websites’ boosting of Holocaust denialism, Cohen said.
Zuckerberg has said he opposes booting Holocaust deniers from Facebook because “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.” And Cohen recalled someone who he identified as one of the heads of Google telling him that Holocaust denial websites show “both sides” of the issue.
“This is madness,” he said, pointing to one recent survey that found two-thirds of American millennials cannot identify the concentration camp Auschwitz.
When Zuckerberg protests that such content-monitoring would be too difficult, Cohen said, “what he’s really saying [is] removing more of these lies and conspiracies is just too expensive.”
“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,” Cohen said.
Advocating for the websites to be held to standards similar to other large publishers, Cohen called for regulation and enforcement to stop extremist material from reaching millions of people.
“As with the Industrial Revolution, it’s time for regulation and legislation to curb the greed of these high-tech robber barons,” he said.