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Sacha Baron Cohen received the Anti-Defamation League's International Leadership Award on Thursday, and the comedian used his acceptance speech to denounce the social media giants that are actively attacking our democracy. Cohen rarely gives interviews when he's not disguised as someone ridiculous, but he believed this occasion warranted an appearance from his "least popular character," himself.

Cohen argued that democracy demands "shared truths," while autocracy thrives on "shared lies" (or "alternative facts"). Autocracy is rolling merrily along, because companies like Facebook either gullibly or complicitly promote the theory that two plus two is sometimes five if enough people believe it. Thus, all opinions -- and conspiracy theories -- are created equal. Mark Zuckerberg perversely defends propaganda as free expression, but he profits from the "hate and violence" shared and clicked on his platform.

COHEN: Think about it. 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."

Cohen humbly acknowledges that he's "a comedian not a scholar," but he correctly observes that digital media has democratized content to the point that it's hard to tell what's legitimate from what isn't. In the long ago days of the 1990s, the tabloid with a cover story about Hillary Clinton's lesbian alien romance appeared in the supermarket checkout line. It didn't share space next to the New York Times. If ranting conspiracy theorists got air time at all, they were on a public access channel late at night. They weren't counterprogramming to Dan Rather.

ADL International Leadership Award Presented to Sacha Baron Cohen at Never Is Now 2019 youtu.be

Now you need a master's degree in journalism to process the news (unless you read Wonkette, which luckily for you is run by a woman with a master's degree in journalism to process it for you!). Facebook, a multi-billion-dollar corporation, can't be bothered to fact-check political ads and has dumped that task onto its users who already have jobs. If video killed the radio star, digital damn near murdered the journalist. The killers haven't replaced journalism with anything better -- just more accessible.

COHEN: 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.

Cohen is considered an heir to Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman, and he's always strived for more from his comedy than just shocking audiences. He's not a Mount Everest performer. He doesn't push boundaries just because they're there. He admitted that some of his comedy is juvenile, but it helps him get people to lower their guard and reveal their prejudices to the world. His targets, though, are never the marginalized. He shared the amusing yet horrifying story of how his character Colonel Erran Morad convinced a seemingly normal Trump supporter to plant and set off explosives on innocent people at the Women's March in San Francisco. Conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric on social media had prepared him to accept anything. They loaded the gun for anyone to find and fire.

COHEN: 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.

Cohen went on dismantle Zuckerberg's absurd arguments against any responsible behavior from Facebook. No one's constitutional right to free speech is limited if their repulsive ideas and flawed facts don't have access to a third of the world. The US government can "make no law abridging freedom of speech," but private companies can and should uphold basic standards for what reaches their audience. Cohen charged that the "Silicon Six—all billionaires, all Americans... care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy." It's hard to argue with this point. The wealthy boast unlimited "freedom of speech" online. They can buy enough ads and sponsored content to convince people the Martians have landed, and they wouldn't need Orson Welles. Imagine a past where tobacco companies could buy the front pages of major newspapers and fill them with "stories" about the benefits of smoking.

COHEN: 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, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.

It's easy for Zuckerberg to set himself above the fray. He can lie to himself and the world that his platform simply offers a "diversity of viewpoints," but in reality, he's "both-sides"-ing himself to riches and our democracy to ruin. Cohen is right: YouTube, Twitter, and especially Facebook have a defective product and they are obligated to fix it no matter how much it costs.

Cohen's speech, which is embedded above, is well worth watching in its entirety. Sometimes it takes a comedian to effectively call out an ongoing tragedy.

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle.

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