Having made a name for himself causing cringing controversy, forging alter egos with the ease of a spam producer, Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G, Borat, Bruno) has taken a plunge into waters swum by every indignant activist, commentator and show pony worth column space in the media scape. The target is predictably dull, normal and soporific: the digital monsters of Silicon Valley and their tyrants as demon conjurors.
Baron Cohen’s venue for attack was the Never Is Now Summit hosted by the Anti-Defamation League. In under half-an-hour, the recipient of the ADL’s International Leadership Award took YouTube, Facebook and other tech giants to task for not policing that old, troubling matter of disinformation and nasty content.
“One thing is pretty clear to me: All this hate and violence [in the world] is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.” And so does Baron Cohen fall for the trap of presuming that such giants, unlikeable as they might be, are the mediums that confect the message, the propaganda ministers who run the global information program of hate.
He makes the mistake of assuming that reach and access somehow qualify as production and control. “Facebook, Google, YouTube, 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.” Baron Cohen ignores the other base instincts: the cute factor, the cuddly animal, the emetic pet videos that stream through the infoverse and are likewise shared with algorithmic fetish.
Obviously, Baron Cohen’s point here is that the machinists and the designers are flawed for simply giving the searchers of information what they want. They are the diviners of shallowness, grubby, naughty, and insufferable. “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.” My, oh my.
Baron Cohen’s own stance on disinformation acts as a rich double. “I’ve spent most of the past two decades in character. In fact, this is the first time that I have ever stood up and given a speech as my least popular character, Sacha Baron Cohen.” He prides himself on the art of deception, the false show, the hidden message, but condemns its dissemination by the tech giants and their algorithmic squaddies.
The British comedian is famed for playing a figure who dissembles and forges false identities, advertising them as authentic to the gullible and moronic. The bumbling, potty-mouthed Ali G, who played a faux ghetto lout from Staines more black than black (the character itself was distinctly milk white often clad in a yellow tracksuit) ensured that those he interviewed were similarly seduced by the show. Only afterwards is the unsuspecting interviewee aware that their interlocutor has deceived them.
Several notorious cases of this abound in the Baron Cohen cabinet of wonders. The interview with the late Tony Benn, veteran stalwart of British Labour, comes to mind. With Borat, the sharpness becomes positively perpendicular. He moved his way through the United States causing havoc with Borat: Cultural Leanings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. He was sued by Romanian villagers in New York for having misrepresented their village as a Kazakh enclave of retrograde rapists, prostitutes and thieves untouched by history. The Kazakh government expressed concern about the depiction of a country considered “terra incognita for many in the West”.
A theme has also been picked up in Baron Cohen’s attack, best noted by Casey Newton in The Verge. “As a rich celebrity who has no need for the free communication tools [social media] provide, and who can thrive without relying on the promotional benefits that come with active use of the platforms, blasting Big Tech costs Baron Cohen nothing.” And please thank social media for making his speech on the ills of social media viral.
Nothing here detracts from the necessary contribution Baron Cohen has made to humour and satire. Borat was a vehicle to out anti-Semitism; Bruno the flamboyant flamer of a hairdresser drew out homophobia. (Ironically enough, a former president of the ADL, Abraham Lincoln took issue with Baron Cohen’s use of anti-Semitic jokes in 2012. “You’re not going to eradicate it by making fun of it.”)
Nor is this to say that Cohen does not sport relevantly directed salvos against the information complex that has grown out of Silicon Valley’s behemoths. The algorithmic directions do give the marginal and repulsive centre stage. The prospects for radicalisation do exist. But he leaves various things unanswered. There is no consideration about the implications of censorship or control of content left in the hands of such giants. Silicon Valley companies are also being co-opted as mutual regulators, with content commissars keen to ensure that matters offensive or reprehensible are not disseminated.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself has picked up on this thread of reasoning. In April in the Washington Post, he opened the door for greater government regulation of social media entities. “Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree.” He made all the right signals for state officials, suggesting that governments pass laws on, “Harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.”
But as is shown by the passage of such legislative instruments as the FOSTA-SESTA law, intended to target online sex trafficking, the object is often avoided. Instead of reducing sex trafficking, the law seems to have had the effect of emboldening pimps and increasing their market share. Websites rushed to self-censor; Reddit kicked several communities associated with sex work off its platforms while Craigslist removed personals altogether.
Even more troubling is Baron Cohen’s suggestion to amend section 230 of the Communications Decency Act making social media companies liable for what their users generate or post. As the current reading goes, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
This is simply too much for the comedian. If internet companies can be held responsible for enabling paedophiles to use sites to ensnare children then “let’s hold these companies responsible for those who use their sites to advocate mass murder of children because of their race or religion.”
Nothing would be more fitting than a genuine chastising and limitation on the power of these digital daemons. But Baron Cohen saddles them with a blame that ignores social evolution and behavioural expectations. It is also politically immature, giving the censors an all encouraging green light to control how users access and respond to shared material. The social media giants have mastered what is essentially intrinsic in modern shallowness, the discourse of the “like”, the “share”, the “upload”. But to give them the full ambit of paternalistic control steered by state officials, castigating them for algorithmic negligence, is merely one part of a broader problem that remains historical: What do we allow people to see and who makes that decision?