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.


Dan Under

15th December 2019 at 3:33 am

The underlying IT design and premise of FarceBook or Twattersphere was to attract as many individuals as possible to the chaotic mêleé in order to satiate a financial commercial model. The dopamine ‘fix’ from ‘likes’ cemented the mass voyeurism, intentionally turning it into addiction. Any transient micro-moment seductive enough to capture the flea-bite attention span of the user was rewarded. It is a travesty of rational human communication and serves little useful purpose, in other words, we can easily do without it.
As for censorship, the Nazis took an already established notion of eugenics that had been widespread throughout the Anglosphere and in science since the late nineteenth century, to its evil, malevolent reduction ad absurdum seen in their ‘final solution’. We see the similar ‘decarbonising’ pathology today in the form of Gremlin Greta and her UN eco-Marxist globalist cronies, or the hooded Leftist thugs who screech ‘not my President’, or ‘not my Prime Minister’, who really would be better of living in Beijing or the PRNK or the theocratic black hole of Teheran. Decarbonisation is but one step away from genocide; too many pesky carbon units the Watermelons chant.

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!

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