Sacha Baron Cohen is wrong about social media

There’s too much censorship online, not too little.

Fraser Myers

Fraser Myers
Staff writer

Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen launched a scathing attack on the social-media giants last week for enabling the proliferation of ‘hate, conspiracies and lies’. In his keynote address to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Baron Cohen denounced Facebook as ‘the greatest propaganda machine in history’. The Who is America star called for greater regulation of social media to remove hate speech, even if it meant banning elected politicians. And because Facebook doesn’t fact-check political adverts, he claimed that if the platform were around in the 1930s, ‘it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his “solution” to the “Jewish problem”’.

There are two major problems with Baron Cohen’s broadside against social media. First, it is simply untrue that social-media platforms are unregulated and unmoderated havens for free speech. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and PayPal have all banned users who they consider to be spreading ‘hate speech’ – a definition which extends from conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and EDL founder Tommy Robinson to left-wing feminists like Meghan Murphy and some Antifa organisations.

Social-media platforms are also regulated by law around the world. European countries have all kinds of laws that have been used to force platforms to take down content or to punish users who post content that is deemed inappropriate. In the UK, nine people are arrested every single day for what they post on social media. Not content with that, the British government plans to introduce regulation to tackle ‘online harms’ – a far more nebulous concept that covers otherwise legal speech. The EU plans to build on these proposals by introducing its own controls on speech.

France’s fake-news law was drawn up to tackle the spread of the yellow-vest protests (as part of a broader crackdown on the movement). Germany’s NetzDG law threatens social-media platforms with fines if they fail to remove illegal content. Authoritarian regimes including Venezuela, Vietnam, Russia and Belarus have explicitly cited Germany’s law as justification for their own crackdowns on internet freedom.

Even more troubling was Baron Cohen’s appeal to the crimes of Nazi Germany. The enemies of free speech see ‘Hitler’ as a kind of trump card against calls for unrestricted and unadulterated free speech. The implication is that the Nazis’ rise to power and the Holocaust could have been prevented if only the German state had been prepared to censor Nazi propaganda.

The historical truth is that the Nazis and their ideas were often censored in Weimar Germany. Anti-Semitic speech was prohibited by law. The offence of ‘insulting communities of faith’ carried a three-year prison sentence. As Flemming Rose points out in The Tyranny of Silence, leading Nazis including Joseph Goebbels, Theodor Fritsch and Julius Streicher were all prosecuted for hate speech before they rose to power – and Streicher was imprisoned twice. The Nazi publication Der Stürmer was regularly confiscated and its editors were taken to court on at least 36 occasions.

Far from ‘free speech’ allowing Nazism to flourish, attempts to censor Nazi propaganda often backfired. Rather than tackling Nazi anti-Semitism, dragging leading Nazis through the courts allowed them to pose as martyrs. As Alan Bovoroy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, writes in When Freedoms Collide: ‘During the 15 years before Hitler came to power, there were more than 200 prosecutions based on anti-Semitic speech… As subsequent history so painfully testifies, this type of legislation proved ineffectual on the one occasion when there was a real argument for it.’

In fact, surely the Third Reich itself should give any right-thinking person pause for thought when calling for censorship and restrictions on speech. Books were burned, opposition parties were banned, and dissenters were thrown in jail or into concentration camps. The absence of free speech and open, critical debate is what has allowed authoritarians the world over to keep hold of power – to cover up atrocities and to propagate lies that go unchallenged. The Nazis should act as a grave warning of the perils of censorship, not as a spur for more censorship.

Sacha Baron Cohen – like many liberals in the age of Trump, Brexit and populism – is no doubt sincere in his fear that democracy is under threat from misinformation and hate speech. But free speech is the liberty upon which all others rest. It is the lifeblood of democracy. To restrict free speech in the name of preserving our relatively free society is dangerously wrongheaded.

Fraser Myers is a staff writer at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Picture by: Getty

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Comments

Tony Collins

4th December 2019 at 4:38 pm

Just imagine if Corbyn gave us all free broadband; it would give him a handle to impose sanctions on what can / cannot be published on social media.
What price free speech then?

Amanda Purdy

2nd December 2019 at 10:03 pm

Remember the golden rule “ban nothing, question everything”. So whats new about ads lying to us, does your soap powder make you whites whiter and your coloureds brighter. Hell know. As adults we have to know that nearly everyone is lying to us for their own ends and we need to use our brains to work out who to trust. This is the default state so if someone is gullible and puts their faith in the wrong information they will suffer the consequences and hopefully learn from it. Tough love, antifragility, survival in the real world. In democracy you can get a tyranny of the masses but it is through conversations face to face, social media, whatever, that ideas can spread through a community. Stopping the conversation is the wrong way to go.

Steve James

27th November 2019 at 6:23 pm

Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech has been bugging me for the last couple of days, not because I think it is hypocritical – although some of the stuff he has done has offended a lot of people – but because I think he is just so wrong on this. So I though I would post my thoughts – as I’ve been hounded off most of the sites I post on by liberals.

One of the things that stood out from WW2 and the holocaust was that many people at the time didn’t accept it was going on. When the full extent of the atrocities came out, everyone – including Germans that didn’t know – were horrified. Does he really think that had social media been around at the time it would have made things worse? I just think that is nonsense. Most people are decent and aren’t stupid. Cohen must know this as he has to target those he knows are vulnerable enough to fall for his antics. Had anyone tried posting ads that recommended the ‘Final Solution’ on social media there would have been uproar. It was done in secret. That is how the Nazis got away with it.

As for hate speech, how is he defining that? My post “Throw the remainer down the well so my country can be free” got removed from one popular site for being hate speech. It was just a joke of course, with reference to Cohen’s work. We don’t have enough wells in this country for starters. Plus, I was just winding remainers up.

Martin Adams

26th November 2019 at 11:54 pm

A very well argued article.
Steve Roberts’ comment below (25th November, 5.15) nails what’s wrong with the motivations behind thinking such as that expressed by Sasha Baron Cohen — and countless others on the so-called liberal left.
Their self-righteousness (of which they seem extraordinarily unaware) is based on a flawed view of human nature — that human beings can be improved by re-education to accept the premises on which the righteous base their thought and lives. But as this article shows, using just one of several dismal examples available from the twentieth century, such attempts invariably end up in repression and worse.
I write as a very orthodox Christian. But I accept that history shows that some who have claimed to be Christians have believed and acted in ways essentially based on the kind of self-righteousness that Steve Roberts spells out all too neatly — a belief that human legislation can abolish unrighteousness and mould human nature for the better. A few ostensibly Christian examples: the Salem witch trials; the Anabaptist rebellion in Munster; the Spanish Inquisition. And then there is this glorious parade of non-Christians from the twentieth century — Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, Lenin. All of them propounded ideologies rooted in the possibility of perfection.
It’s worrying when folks who obviously care are so oblivious to the deeper issues raised by their proposed actions. Almost always, that lack of awareness is rooted partly in ignorance of history — as Fraser Myers’s article ably shows.

Martin Adams

27th November 2019 at 12:01 am

Ooops! It’s Sacha — not the same as my friend Sasha . . . . Apologies!

Steve James

26th November 2019 at 8:19 pm

So, Sacha Baron Cohen is arguing that the holocaust would have been really bad if Facebook had been around in the 1940s. Therefore, we had better start censoring social media. Apart from sounding like he is denying how bad the holocaust was, it is not even a logically sound argument.

Hugo van der Meer

26th November 2019 at 1:55 pm

He’s speaking as an entitled jew not as a comedian. It’s always great to bring Hitler into the mix, bound to emote the emotional. Why not bring the Israeli pogrom in Palestine into the mix that’d be great or the danger caused by vaccination censorship debacle currently instigated through various media outlets by bigpharma trying to remove any posts by concerned parents whose children have been badly affected by vaccines.

John Millson

26th November 2019 at 9:30 am

Re Hitler publicity. Obviously there is no comparison with the situation in Weimar Germany and today. Samizdat distribution of grubby leaflets and Facebook on millions of devices…? It’s about the medium.
Too right racists, terrorists and lying politicians shouldn’t enjoy such a massive reach.

John Millson

26th November 2019 at 10:08 am

Thinking about this further.
So if Weimar had no hate speech laws the Nazis wouldn’t have come to power?
The Weimar Republic was remarkably open & tolerant and only censored film, post-production, case-by-case.

Janet Mozelewski

27th November 2019 at 10:15 pm

Who decides?
Who decides who is a terrorist? A racist? Who decides which politicians are lying?

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. (Mr Corbyn can tell you all about that.)
Often those accusing another group of being racist do so while falling into the trap of being racist themselves.
As for lying politicians. Where does one start? It is pretty much a job requirement that they have the skin of a rhinoceros…..hence we get to see Tony Blair pontificating when he should, by rights, be behind bars.
Social media may be a cess pit in many ways…but it has been a force for good in one significant area…..It reveals the hypocrisy of everyone who preaches on it.

Hugh Oxford

26th November 2019 at 9:09 am

Much as I deeply enjoy Sacha Baron Cohen’s output, I think it’s fair to say that he’s spent his life and made a fortune not only defaming minority groups but entire nations.

Zane Lloyd

26th November 2019 at 5:38 am

I’m with baron-cohen on this one. The problem in this article it’s not acknowledging that facebook is allowing political adds that contain untrue claims. It’s also not acknowledging that plain lies are often getting more traction than facts. Popularity is being measured on sensationalism, and the media giants are profiting at the expense of democracy. Freedom of speech isn’t just about the freedom to spread lies. I used to be of the opinion that people could say what they wanted and the liars would be shouted down. But we’re in a post truth world now, and freedom of speech is being used to suppress facts, as such it’s an illusion of freedom. Well freedom of the few to spread their propaganda.

antoni orgill

28th November 2019 at 10:49 pm

How could you disenable people from telling lies? Re-wire their brains?

Ven Oods

25th November 2019 at 11:40 pm

Cohen’s now a fully-paid-up luvvie, so where’s the surprise?

Tim Hare

25th November 2019 at 9:28 pm

Would any of Cohen’s characters be seen as his own form of ‘hate speech’?

Jim Lawrie

25th November 2019 at 11:03 pm

He’ll be the judge of that. And of what is a joke and what is not. And what can be joked about.

Jim Lawrie

25th November 2019 at 6:38 pm

” dragging leading Nazis through the courts allowed them to pose as martyrs.” Aaahh … those impressionable plebs again. Or perhaps what they said resonated with people.

Steve Gray

25th November 2019 at 10:06 pm

Jim,

The Nazis liked to make cynical use of pre-third reich institutions, like the judiciary – why bulldoze the courts, when you can act out a third-rate drama in them about being ‘a put-upon anti-semite’ ?

As for their ideas resonating with people, as the war went on, there were an increasing number of opportunities for those who wanted to drape their bloodied corpse across some barbed wire entanglement, in the same of ‘The Reich’, to do just that.

Then we got to June 1945 and that was that – Game Over, A-dolf. : )

Jim Lawrie

26th November 2019 at 10:30 am

Might I add Steve that the left, through their enthusiasm for the courts and laws, gave them no end of opportunities.
They are doing the same again. The closing down of all opposition can only lead in one direction.

Jim Lawrie

26th November 2019 at 10:33 am

BTE Steve your reply to me only showed up on my browser 12 hours after it was posted.

Steve Gray

26th November 2019 at 2:08 pm

Jim,

The Nazis eliminated their political opponents and became a dictatorship. As a part of this process, the population of Germany were presented with a choice : support Hitler or disappear into the ‘Night and Fog’ .

https://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/go-in-depth/germany-1933-democracy-dictatorship/

James Knight

25th November 2019 at 6:16 pm

It wasn’t long ago that a man was stopped from committing a violent hate crime thanks to his incriminating posts on social media. There’s a difference between feeling safe in the virtual world and being safe in the real world.

Jim Lawrie

25th November 2019 at 5:58 pm

Oh dear. Another article centred around The Holocaust. How many is that this month?

Steve Roberts

25th November 2019 at 5:15 pm

Myers may be correct that Cohen and possibly some other “liberal” types may be sincere and just wrongheaded, maybe not.
Underneath all this is an arrogance and contempt , an arrogance that is never explained by liberals and lefties as to how is it that they themselves will never be duped, fooled,convinced or influenced by any media, they are of course above and beyond that level of stupidity, they can see and have a mind of their own, they can assess information and make objective judgements on information received be it truth or lies.
And this is where the contempt kicks in, because what they really mean is that it is the rest of us unthinkers who are susceptible, gullible and easily led astray in a manner they never would be.
The answer to that is to ban particular matters that they decide is unsafe for public consumption, they being the all seeing judgemental eyes of society, our moral protectors, protecting us lessers.
And if that doesn’t work, well it may be the case that there needs to be a restriction of political power to these lessers, they really cannot be trusted can they.
Heard this anywhere before ?

Martin Adams

26th November 2019 at 11:56 pm

Very well put, Steve. I have commented separately, citing your arguments. Thank you!

Perverted Lesbian

25th November 2019 at 4:04 pm

Agree

Cohen has made the argument for more censorship using Hitler as a metaphor, it is his contention that if Hilter were alive today he would be free to run ads on Facebook, ergo this is bad let’s censor Facebook content.

I agree, there should be less censorship, not more, if Cohen were to have his preferred way then in order to force more censorship on social media it would involve passing new legislation right? this would hand certain powers to governments, now what then if Hitler is the one in power?, Cohen cannot simply make the huge assumption that censorship prevents the next Hitler, as Hitler came to be way before social media, so then we would be in a situation where we have a new Hitler, plus we have handed the new Hitler a sh!t tonne of new powers to censor what we can and cannot post or read online and it wouldn’t stop there would it.

We should never give an inch of power away, no matter how tempting, or what inherent good we can convince ourselves to apply to it in these times, cos who knows what is down the road. Freedom is hard-fought and is rarely handed back, and it is rarely given back without loss of life. So, instead of appealing to emotion ( of course, no one wants another Aushwitchz ) appeal to reason and think of generations to come that will have to live with the consequences of less freedom.

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