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April 25, 2022

Comedians in Democracies Are Faster Than Lawmakers

What is a more fitting occasion to reexamine Sacha Baron Cohen’s searing speech where he slammed Facebook, Twitter and other large social media platforms as “the greatest propaganda machine in history”:

The new Digital Services Act (DSA) is a fitting occasion

or,

Elon Musk buying Twitter?

It is but the fact that we just discussed Cohens work and looked at his old material from the Ali G Show.

And my growing perception that the greatest and most important voices of democracy are comedians. And no, I explicitly am not speaking of those who hold an political office.

I am speaking of those who fight for free speech – those who hold a mirror to the absurdity and nonsense of those in power – the court jesters. When Trump watched Bill Maher on the other side of that tube screen, he looked in that mirror…

The attempt of an enumeration of the Atkinsons, Frys, Cohens, Mahers, and more would inevitably lead to fallibility… and this is about Sacha Baron Cohen.

Every man and woman at their own level bear witness to a long history in pointing out though the satire and speech and their characters and never got tired pointing out the absurdity while doing it. It only works because it is absurd, and we are all human. Because we share a common denominator it allows a satire to work in the first place, because satire is removed from the norm, and we are all aware of that and the norm.

And sometimes it is hard to distinguish from the character, but when they speak as Atkinsons, Frys, and Cohens it hits with a different force. More directly. And we appreciate that because it is not easy as Cohen himself admits “this is the first time that I have ever stood up and given a speech as my least popular character, Sacha Baron Cohen. And I have to confess, it is terrifying.”

I think it is one of the more important speeches of our time and therefore deserves to be redistributed another time so that it gets more awareness. Because despite all the ex post law making, it is the now that we live in that counts. And that very now is defined by our actions now, not laws of the past or future.

It is not nice because it holds a mirror to all of us. And beauty of the governance system that we life in, the paradox of democracy means that a strong democracy can handle that, can handle the debate, and actually must debate free speech.

Background

The new framework under the DSA modernizes the legislature from 2001 and therefore from a reality where platforms like Facebook, Youtube, etc. had not reached such dominant positions.

It will rebalance the rights and responsibilities of users, online intermediaries, including online platforms as well as very large online platforms, and public authorities.

The DSA contains EU-wide due diligence obligations that will apply to all digital services that connect consumers to goods, services, or content, including new procedures for faster removal of illegal content as well as comprehensive protection for users' fundamental rights online.

European Commission

In the light of the DSA when Sacha Baron Cohen scathed the large social media platforms as “the greatest propaganda machine in history”

Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march.

This sets the definition of the rivals that this fight is all about. Unlike the DSA which states that it is founded on European values, including the respect of human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, Cohen states very clearly what we all feel: It is not about balancing interests, but about the form of governance, the world we want to live in.

[…]

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.

Declaring himself to be but a mere comedian is taking the weight off of the argument.

The Greatest Propaganda Machine in History.

[…] 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 fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth.

He states the perceived reality. Then takes you on why there is a problem in that status quo. And the amplifies the relevance of the topic by illustrating what has changed: a beautiful pitch. Then lending his voice to a bigger authority Voltaire.

On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. […] We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.

When I, as the wannabe gangsta Ali G, asked the astronaut Buzz Aldrin “what woz it like to walk on de sun?” the joke worked, because we, the audience, shared the same facts. If you believe the moon landing was a hoax, the joke was not funny.

[…]

But when, 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.

It’s actually quite shocking how easy it is to turn conspiracy thinking into violence.

[…]

Voltaire was right: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” And social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people.

Now Cohen reinforces the shared dream that we all have, the promise of the internet, the dreams that we burdened the internet with and that we are no getting disappointed by. Then Cohen re-frames the discussion by taking every single point that has been propagated and destroys their arguments – five in total – by showing that it is not a matter of free speech to those who claim it to be, but for them it is a date leave to hide what they have been exposed by.

I’m speaking up today because I believe that our pluralistic democracies are on a precipice and that the next 12 months, and the role of social media, could be determinant. […] A sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threatens democracy and our planet – this cannot possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind.

I believe it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies. […]

1. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.

[…]to portray this whole issue as “choices … around free expression” […]is ludicrous. This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.

2. We’re not asking them to determine the boundaries of free speech, but taking responsibility on their platforms.

[…] 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 across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.

3. Regulation in democracies is not autocracy but bureaucracy

[…] to equate regulation of companies like his to the actions of “the most repressive societies”. Incredible. […] 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, […]

4. There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist. Not everything is equal.

welcoming a “diversity of ideas”, […]. To quote Edward R Murrow, one “cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument”. […]

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

5. Generating more engagement is too lucrative and content moderation is too expensive

[…] when discussing the difficulty of removing content, […] 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. Twitter could deploy an algorithm to remove more white supremacist hate speech, but they reportedly haven’t because it would eject some very prominent politicians from their platform. Maybe that’s not a bad thing! 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.

6. Social media companies are publishers

It’s time to finally call these companies what they really are – the largest publishers in history. And here’s an idea for them: abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines and TV news do every day. […] If there are standards and practices for what cinemas and television channels can show, then surely companies that publish material to billions of people should have to abide by basic standards and practices too. […]

7. Social media companies have to abide to the laws just like companies in any other industry.

In every other industry, a company can be held liable when their product is defective. When engines explode or seatbelts malfunction, car companies recall tens of thousands of vehicles, at a cost of billions of dollars. It only seems fair to say to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter: 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.

In every other industry, you can be sued for the harm you cause. Publishers can be sued for libel, people can be sued for defamation. I’ve been sued many times! I’m being sued right now by someone whose name I won’t mention because he might sue me again! But social media companies are largely protected from liability for the content their users post – no matter how indecent it is – by Section 230 of, get ready for it, the Communications Decency Act. Absurd!

Cohen ends giving a perspective and a dream of unity, reinforcing what it really is about.

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.


Find the full speech here:

ADL

The Guardian

Written:
April 25, 2022
Updated:
April 25, 2022
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