The ADL presented an award to a comic who uses anti-Semitism to get yuks, then he called for something the ADL apparently wants as well: government regulation of speech on the internet.
It should be ironic enough that the ADL chose to honor Sacha Baron Cohen, a comic infamous for exploiting anti-Semitic tropes, with the organization’s International Leadership Award at a recent summit on anti-Semitism and hate in New York City. However, Cohen’s acceptance speech, which calls for government censorship of social media, is as almost as counterintuitive as Kanye West praisin’ Yahweh at Joel O’Steen’s Texas megachurch.
Such is the world we live in, folks.
Sure, Cohen is a comic genius who uses characters such as Ali G, Borat and Bruno to skewer misogyny, homophobia, racism and hatred of the Jewish people. When Cohen, who is Jewish himself, has his fictional Kazakhstani journalist, Borat Sagdiyev, hop up on a stage in Tucson, Arizona and lead his cowboy audience in a song with the refrain, “Throw the Jew down the well,” the joke is on anti-Semitism and the crowd for going along with it.
Same goes for Cohen’s 2006 comedy, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which features a scene where Borat does a live TV report on the creepy pseudo-Kazakhstan tradition, “the running of the Jew.”
Yet, it is just this sort of cringe-inducing humor that is likely to be flagged by an algorithm, a humorless moderator or an overly sensitive viewer. This is one of the many problems with censorship. It may eliminate the targeted material, but it almost inevitably involves unintended consequences.
Comedy is particularly problematic because the best comedy is iconoclastic, transgressive and directed at stereotypes. Think of Don Rickles’ insult comedy, Eddie Murphy’s early humor or anything from Dave Chappelle, and you get the drift.
Which is why Cohen’s remarks are so disappointing and obtuse. He tries to blame all of the “hate and violence” in the world on “a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.” He blames Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube, and the algorithms they employ, for a host of evils, from the proliferation of racism and intolerance to mass murders and even Myanmar’s genocide against the Rohingya.
GTS: Google That Shit
Assuming Cohen isn’t pulling another stunt (a dangerous assumption, that), this is the siren call of censors since the beginning of time: suppress the speech you find offensive and the world will be a better place.
Cohen tells his audience that “social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people.” And there is some truth to that, given the Russians’ disinformation campaign during the 2016 election, or the Myanmar government’s anti-Rohingya propaganda, which slipped past Facebook’s moderators for far too long.
But Cohen neglects the fact that Facebook is routinely censored and blocked in countries like China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and the Sudan. The idea behind social media, which lets individual users become their own publishers, is an inherently democratic one. It allows activists to communicate with each other and inform the world of ongoing oppression. President Trump’s opponents, the so-called “resistance,” use social media every day to lambaste POTUS and his policies.
Both social media and the internet permit a greater flow of information, ideas and opinions than at any time in history, and that Nile river of knowledge and assorted media can include nefarious messages, misinformation and outright lies. Like many establishment liberals, Cohen sees the internet as undermining traditional gatekeepers, and both he and the ADL want to restore these old fashioned filters on the minds of the masses.
Take this passage from Cohen’s speech:
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.
What Cohen is really saying to his audience is: you and I know the difference between fact and fiction, but the ignorant masses do not. In response to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s contention that, “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies,” Cohen counters that people are too dim-witted to make that decision.
Literally so disgusting and all the ugly white people are laughing. I will square up on Olivia Wilde too. https://t.co/Sq0rdIm99K
— isa (@moisturizeds) February 29, 2016
“[A]t a time when two-thirds of millennials say they haven’t even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what’s ‘credible?'” asks Cohen. “How are they supposed to know the lie is a lie?”
Actually, it’s pretty easy: GTS, Google that shit. For example, if you Google the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the first page of links, at least, is to solid information. If you keep going, you will find anti-Semitic links as well. But assume there was no internet, and you pick up a self-published copy of the Protocols somewhere. Who is going to tell you that it’s a 100-year old hoax? If you have access to a good library, maybe you can inform yourself there. But what about in smaller areas of the country? In such an instance, educating yourself is far easier with an internet and a search engine than without them.
As for distinguishing between the BBC and Breitbart, this has more to do with education and critical thinking. Social media is no replacement for schools and colleges. Still, even fans of the BBC must admit that it can and does get things wrong from time to time, and that it has its biases, too. As for Breitbart and Fox News, even their broken clocks are, on occasion, correct.
I just listened to the entire Sacha Baron Cohen thing and… good god. He really doesn't seem to realize that his plan (the government working with activist groups to decide what's ok online) could render the vast majority of his content "hate speech."
— Katie Herzog (@kittypurrzog) November 22, 2019
Cohen praises Twitter for banning paid political ads, though he overlooks the “paid” part. Unpaid political messages are still allowed, which is a good thing. Cohen also blasts Facebook for allowing political ads even if they contain lies. He wants Facebook to fact-check all political ads before they run. But TV stations regularly broadcast misleading and downright dishonest political advertisements without vetting them. Why is Facebook different in this regard?
Enter Godwin’s Law
The comic contends that if Facebook had been around in the 1930s, “it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the Jewish problem.”
Such hyperbole ignores the historical fact that the Nazis came to power without an internet or social media. And you can be sure that Hitler never would have allowed anything like the vibrant, unruly discourse that you can see on Facebook or Twitter on a daily basis.
— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) November 22, 2019
It’s worth remembering that Hitler had a bestseller out in the 1920s and ’30s. Is Cohen so naive as to think that if Mein Kampf had been banned outright, Hitler would not have come to power? At the time, excerpts and quotes from the book were used to warn people about the dangers the Nazis posed. The book remains in print and continues to be used for that purpose.
Cohen claims that he is not calling for censorship. He lists a number of things both he and the ADL would like for Facebook and other social media sites to do, some of which seem reasonable. But he ultimately concludes that, “By now it’s pretty clear, they cannot be trusted to regulate themselves,” and he calls for more government “regulation and legislation.”
As Mike Masnick over at Tech Dirt points out, the First Amendment may not apply to how Facebook moderates its site, but it does, thankfully, prevent the government from legislating speech, save in certain narrowly-defined circumstances.
The talk was nothing more than an extended jeremiad against freedom of speech on the internet.
His issue is not really with the people running FB, Twitter, Google.
His issue is with the fact that billions of users on those platforms now have a voice. That can’t be taken away.
— Balaji S. Srinivasan (@balajis) November 23, 2019
As for Cohen’s advocacy for doing away with Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, Masnick notes that Section 230 was specifically created to allow for the kind of content moderation that Cohen wants.
“Section 230 makes sure that those who are defamed sue those who defamed them, and not the intermediary tool that was used to publish the defamation,” he writes.
It’s tiresome to see seemingly every nonprofit on the planet jump on the bash-Facebook bandwagon and argue for de facto censorship of the internet. The ADL should know better, though bandwagons do help with fundraising.
I’m w Sean & Bret.We love you @SachaBaronCohen but you have not thought this through.Censorship & government control over which ideas permitted on internet is not the way. Blasphemy laws are inevitably oppressive &ineffective.The antidote to cruel & twisted ideas is better ideas. https://t.co/wIu6HWG3GX
— Christina Sommers 🧢 (@CHSommers) November 23, 2019
This is not to say Facebook and other social media companies are without sin, but their faults often lie in doing too much to placate authority, not too little.
No doubt Cohen’s speech and his new ADL award will assist him with some of the negative responses to his comedy. He mentions such criticism in his address, noting that naysayers have accused his humor of “reinforcing old stereotypes.”
There’s nothing like a cause to help mold a public image. Considering Cohen’s comedic send-ups of anti-Semitic clichés, what could better deflect further criticism than a crusade against the mega-rich satraps of social media sites for facilitating bigotry and prejudice?
Sadly, as Cohen and the ADL are well aware, hatred is as old as humanity and will likely survive both Facebook and internet, no matter how long they last.