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Big Tech is history's biggest propaganda machine

Sacha Baron Cohen (Going Viral)
Filed on November 25, 2019 | Last updated on November 25, 2019 at 09.18 pm

The Silicon Six, all billionaires, care more about boosting their share price than protecting democracy.

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.

What do all these dangerous trends have in common? I'm just a comedian and an actor, not a scholar. But one thing is pretty clear to me. 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 trigger outrage and fear.

Thanks to social media, conspiracies take hold, it's easier for hate groups to recruit, easier for foreign intelligence agencies to interfere in our elections, and easier for a country like Myanmar to commit genocide against the Rohingya.

In their defense, these social media companies have taken some steps to reduce hate and conspiracies on their platforms, but these steps have been mostly superficial. I believe it's time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies. Last month, however, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook delivered a major speech that, not surprisingly, warned against new laws and regulations on companies like his. Well, some of these arguments are simply absurd. Let's count the ways.

First, Zuckerberg tried to portray this whole issue as "choices.around free expression."

That is ludicrous. This is not about limiting anyone's free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people, the biggest platform to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.

Second, Zuckerberg claimed that new limits on what's posted on social media would be to "pull back on free expression." This is utter nonsense. The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law" abridging freedom of speech, however, this does not apply to private businesses like Facebook. We're not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.

Third, Zuckerberg seemed to equate regulation of companies like his to the actions of "the most repressive societies." Incredible. This, from one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees.

The Silicon Six-all billionaires, all Americans-who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. 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. It's like we're living in the Roman Empire, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.

Here's an idea. 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.

Fourth, Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a "diversity of ideas," and last year he gave us an example. He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust "deeply offensive," but he didn't think Facebook should take them down "because I think there are things that different people get wrong." There are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google still takes you to the most repulsive Holocaust denial sites with a simple click. Still, Zuckerberg says that "people should decide what is credible, not tech companies." But 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?

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, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.

Fifth, when discussing the difficulty of removing content, Zuckerberg asked "where do you draw the line?" Yes, it can be difficult. But here's what he's really saying: removing more of these lies and conspiracies is just too expensive.

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. The truth is, these companies won't fundamentally change because their business model relies on generating engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear, outrage.

Finally, Zuckerberg said that social media companies should "live up to their responsibilities," but he's totally silent about what should happen when they don't. By now it's pretty clear, they cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. As with the Industrial Revolution, it's time for regulation and legislation to curb the greed of these high-tech robber barons.

Allow me to leave you with a suggestion for a different aim for society. The ultimate aim of society should be to make sure that people are not targeted, not harassed and not murdered because of who they are, where they come from, who they love, or how they pray.

If we make that our aim-if we prioritise truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference and experts over ignoramuses-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. -Sacha Baron Cohen is an actor, comedian and director

- This is an excerpt from his speech at the Anti-Defamation League's Never is Now summit


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