Sacha Baron Cohen, whose video of “Throw The Jew Down The Well!!” has over 15 million views on YouTube, may have made a career of pushing the boundaries of culturally offensive comedy – but now, after making it to the top and switching to more serious roles with Netflix, he's pulling the ladder up.
Cohen recently accepted an award from the ADL where he gave a keynote address in which he attacked social media companies, suggesting that they're complicit in hate, attacked Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that helps support free speech on the internet, and even went as far as suggesting that there should be an upload filter that deletes content before it even appears – placing the decision of who is and isn't allowed to speak in the hands of Silicon Valley billionaires.
Those that have built a life for themselves online – such as YouTubers and other creators – will no doubt be raising an eyebrow to Cohen's speech. The ADL has long been associated with partnering with YouTube on a mission to reduce “hate” online – and has resulted in a form censorship across the platform, with creators being caught in the crossfire and being demonetized.
YouTube censorship has been catastrophic for creators as algorithms have ended up harming independent news commentary, gaming channels, and more.
Creators are having their life's work deleted from the platform due to overzealous moderation.
The deep-rooted understanding of the dangers that ADL-promoted censorship has on creators is such that when YouTube's biggest solo creator PewDiePie suggested that he was going to donate to the ADL, YouTubers and fans revolted.
And now, in accepting an award from the ADL, Cohen has called for more social media censorship and policing of speech, suggesting that social platforms are complicit in propaganda and ignoring the fact that they're complicit in censorship.
In his speech, Cohen mocked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's suggestion that Facebook shouldn't stifle “free expression”. While many have suggested that Facebook's lip-service to free speech is mostly based on the high costs of moderation, rather than being a principle of the company (for example, Facebook hasn't been shy to ban countless people for their “free expression”), Cohen's speech itself highlights the dangers in calling for people to be silenced.
Cohen makes the classic mistake about free speech and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – one that even Vice President Joe Biden (who voted for the bill) got wrong recently himself.
“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 across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.”
But then he contradicts his entire argument when he says:
“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!”
Section 230 of the CDA, actually allows platforms such as Facebook to be able to delete content on the platform without the risk of being seen as responsible for the speech of their users.
It's Section 230 that actually gives permission for platforms to censor the content of their users.
Cohen, like many others, gets it backward.
Cohen then makes another mistake when he said, “Fortunately, internet companies can now be held responsible for pedophiles who use their sites to target children,” – in reference to recent changes with FOSTA which created an exception to Section 230 for sex trafficking – not necessarily anything to do with pedophiles. And keep in mind, Section 230 was never designed to protect platforms from federal charges on any kind anyway.
So how does Cohen expect Zuckerberg and others to be 100% responsible for what their 2.45 billion users say?
Through upload filters and real-time moderation:
“Here’s another good practice: slow down. Every single post doesn’t need to be published immediately. Oscar Wilde once said that “we live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” But is having every thought or video posted instantly online, even if it is racist or criminal or murderous, really a necessity? Of course not!…Why can’t we have more of a delay so this trauma-inducing filth can be caught and stopped before it’s posted in the first place?”
Cohen also thinks Zuckerberg should simply hire more moderators in order to control people's speech:
“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.”
It's worth noting that Cohen himself was once criticized by the ADL (now deleted from their website) for an Ali G segment that, according to them, viewers thought was “distasteful, and even dangerous.”
Yet, during his speech, Cohen (who's built his career and fortune on this type of content) outlines his defense:
“When Borat was able to get an entire bar in Arizona to sing ‘Throw the Jew down the well,' it did reveal peoples' indifference to anti-Semitism.”
But how would the mass speech filter Cohen calls for be able to work out who's being anti-Semitic and who's pretending to be anti-Semitic to “reveal peoples' indifference”?
Would Coen's 2004 Ali G Show be allowed under his proposed new censorship-driven centralized control of the internet?
You can watch Cohen's full speech on YouTube. Unsurprisingly, the comments are disabled.