Sacha Baron Cohen has had it with social media.
Speaking at the Anti Defamation League’s International Leadership summit on Thursday night, where he was accepting an award, the actor and comedian criticized social media — especially Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), and YouTube — as “the greatest propaganda machine in history.”
Baron Cohen blamed the tech companies for stoking the fires of bigotry and enabling the spread of dangerous conspiracies, often fueled by algorithms designed to keep consumers hooked.
As just one example, the actor cited Facebook’s recently unveiled news section, which includes the far-right website Breitbart as one of its sources.
As another, he pointed the finger at social media companies for the way they provided far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his fringe media outlet InfoWars with platforms and millions of views until banning him amid a wave of criticism last year.
“Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts,” Baron Cohen said. “Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream.”
He added, “We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.”
Facebook declined CNN’s request for comment on Baron Cohen’s remarks.
A YouTube spokesperson emphasized that Jones’s channel was terminated in August last year and the company removed content that violates its Community Guidelines.
A Twitter spokesperson responded, “Our rules are clear: There is no place on Twitter for hateful conduct, terrorist organizations or violent extremist groups. Because of these rules, we’ve permanently suspended the accounts of 186 groups, half of which advocate violence against civilians alongside some form of extremist white supremacist ideology.”
A call to do more
While Cohen acknowledged that the social media companies have taken some measures and implemented policies meant to reduce hate and conspiracies that spread on their platforms, he called the steps “mostly superficial.”
He then called for a fundamental reevaluation of how social media “spreads hate, conspiracies and lies,” pointing to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent speech warning against laws and regulations targeting companies like his.
“Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach,” Cohen asserted. “I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and pedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.”
Zuckerberg was not the only tech leader to fall under Baron Cohen’s critical eye.
“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.”
In the speech, Cohen urged that the companies be seen as “what they really are—the largest publishers in history.” “As such, he said, they should follow basic standards and practices that newspapers, magazines and TV news adhere to in their daily reporting.”
When it came to political ads, Cohen was especially critical of Facebook.
“Fortunately, Twitter finally banned them, and Google is making changes, too. But if you pay them, Facebook will run any ‘political’ ad you want, even if it’s a lie,” he said, noting the company would even help an advertiser find the right microtargeted audience for the message.
“Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem,’” Cohen said, calling on Facebook to fact-check the political ads being run on its platform before spreading them widely.
In any other industry, he asserted, companies are expected to take responsibility for defective products are held accountable.
“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,” he said.
He concluded his speech with a suggestion to prioritize truth, empathy and tolerance over lies, prejudice and indifference.
“Then maybe, just maybe, we can stop the greatest propaganda machine in history, we can save democracy, we can still have a place for free speech and free expression, and, most importantly, my jokes will still work.”