In His First Speech in His Own Voice, Sacha Baron Cohen Takes on Big Tech

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(VALERIE MACON—AFP via Getty Images)

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It began with a joke.

Last week, Sacha Baron Cohen accepted the International Leadership Award at the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never Is Now” summit on anti-Semitism and hate.

“Thank you, ADL, for this recognition and your work in fighting racism, hate, and bigotry,” Baron Cohen said. “And to be clear, when I say ‘racism, hate, and bigotry’ I’m not referring to the names of Stephen Miller’s Labradoodles.”

The humor mostly ended there.

It was the first time the actor and comedian, best known for his stereotype-laden characters, has given a speech in his own voice. He called the experience terrifying. 

What he said turned out to be terrifying for the audience as well.

“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,” he said.

Aside from the fact that half his comedy is “absolutely juvenile and the other half completely puerile,” Cohen claimed a life-long higher calling.

“As a teenager in the UK, I marched against the fascist National Front and to abolish Apartheid,” he said. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on the American civil rights movement. “And as a comedian, I’ve tried to use my characters to get people to let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe, including their own prejudice,” he said, recalling the time he urged an entire bar in Arizona to sing “Throw the Jew down the well.”

It was an oddly moving set of credentials, a set-up to a brutal punchline. 

To blame for this grim state are “six unelected billionaires” who decide what the world sees: “[Mark] Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its parent company Alphabet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin’s ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki, at YouTube, and Jack Dorsey at Twitter.”

“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 that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, ‘Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.’”

What followed was Cohen’s examination of the conspiracy theories that have emboldened white supremacist violence, as well as a serious critique of Facebook’s attempts, superficial to many, to mitigate the damage they’ve done by “giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet.”

The speech is well worth your time.

It’s also a chance to peek into the mind of Cohen The Artist, and understand his attempt to examine the world for unmined truths, assemble them into a mirror, and show us who we are.

The images aren’t always pretty. 

One of his characters, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, convinced a random citizen that Antifa planned to sneak hormones into babies’ diapers in order to “make them transgender.” Not only did the subject believe Cohen, he quickly allowed himself to be drawn into a fake undercover operation that would have had a lethal outcome if it had been real. “He pushed the button and thought he had actually killed three human beings,” said Cohen, explaining the prank. “Voltaire was right, ‘those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.’”

Love or loathe his work, Cohen has earned an eerie authority. He’s able to do individually what social media has enabled hate-spewers and conspiracy theorists to do at scale. 

He ended with an optimistic call to action that, in his view, will save the world and his comedy.

Executing on it, I suppose, will be up to us:

“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 prioritize 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.”

Ellen McGirt


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