Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has labelled social media companies “the greatest propaganda machine in history”, accusing Facebook, Google and others of facilitating hate on their sites.
The Ali G actor, speaking after accepting a leadership award from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in New York, accused internet companies of placing business success above the safety of their users.
He claimed platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were allowing hateful content on their sites because it provoked a response and improved engagement on a site.
“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 de-legitimised and scientific consensus is dismissed,” he said.
“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.
“Let’s think about it. Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter and others – they reach billions of people – and 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.”
Social media companies have been under intense scrutiny in recent years following a number of high-profile incidents involving online misinformation, election interference attempts and the spread of hateful content linked to social media sites.
Critics have accused social media sites of failing to act quickly enough on harmful content.
It has led to calls for increased regulation and greater penalties for firms who fail to protect their users.
In a warning about misinformation, Baron Cohen argued that everything can appear legitimate online, with fake news sites and conspiracy theories appearing alongside “legitimate” news sources.
He attacked Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg over his position on allowing some views to be posted on Facebook as part of his support for freedom of expression.
In a recent speech, the Facebook boss had suggested that not allowing users to voice their opinions freely was akin to censorship.
“I believe it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies,” Baron Cohen said.
“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.
“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 on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.
“Sadly, there will always be racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and child abusers. But I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and paedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.
“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 across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.”
Baron Cohen claimed Mr Zuckerberg, along with the heads of Google, YouTube and Twitter, were more interested in “boosting their share price than protecting democracy” and called their control of such companies “ideological imperialism”.
He said that “unelected” executives in Silicon Valley were “imposing their vision on the rest of the world”, above government control.
Instead, he argued, it should be the goal of society to ensure no-one is targeted because of who they were or where they came from.
“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,” he said.